A group of journalists recently moved the Bombay High Court against an order by a CBI court last month, which barred the media from reporting on the trial in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. The petition has asked for the order to be quashed as, according to them, it is “bad in law,” “illegal”, and a “major roadblock” for discharging their duties. The High Court has agreed to hear the petition in January but the manner in which the CBI court gagged the media is disturbing.
Just a couple of months ago, the Rajasthan government also sought to do the same. It passed an ordinance seeking to protect serving and former judges, magistrates and public servants in the state from being investigated for on-duty action without its prior sanction. But in doing so, the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017 barred the media from reporting on the accusations till sanction for the probe was obtained.
The state government had set itself a six-month deadline to sanction a probe but the ban on reporting, identifying or disclosing details of those public servants or judges until the sanction was granted was a patent attempt to obstruct the media. The ordinance rightfully led to an outcry, forcing the Rajasthan government to put it on hold.
While many governments have attempted to manage and even browbeat the media, the courts stepping into this domain is clearly a new trend. Earlier on November 7, the Allahabad High Court, citing inaccurate representation of its comments, barred the media from reporting on the proceedings in the 2008 Gorakhpur hate speech case, in which Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath is the prime accused.
These orders run counter to what the Supreme Court articulated as far back as March 1950 when it said restraints on expression were a danger to the “marketplace of ideas”. If the highest court’s views on free speech and freedom of the press are to be upheld, the Bombay High Court would do well to lift the CBI court’s gag.