The Andhra Pradesh High Court did not cover itself in glory with its Tuesday late night order gagging the media from reporting the contents of an FIR registered by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) against a dozen persons, including the former Advocate General of the state. Other than the claim of the petitioner that the case was “foisted” due to political vendetta, there were no substantive grounds for such an overriding order. It’s not for the media to go into the merits of the FIR.
Whether the ACB has enough material evidence to support its charges and would it pass legal scrutiny are better left to the process of trial. What should not be compromised until then is the right of the public at large to know what the charges are, more so because they were made against a person who held an important office in the previous regime and because the issue involves alleged pecuniary benefit.
That the high courts have powers to stop an investigation or even withdraw an order in a criminal case is known. We are also conscious of orders passed by the highest courts on occasions that reasonable restrictions on the right to free speech and fair trial can be imposed by a law that is fair, reasonable and proportionate. However, courts cannot invent reasons for placing such restrictions without sufficient explanation and valid grounds laid down under the law, such as those likely to affect the sovereignty and integrity of the country.
An addition to the grounds is the propagation of hate, of late employed by the SC to impose restrictions as in the case involving Sudarshan TV. It may not be out of place to restate here the observations in a report submitted by a six-member committee headed by former SC judge Ruma Pal, which went into the question of “Media Reporting in Courts: Balancing free press, free trial and integrity of judicial proceedings”.
The panel noted that the only external interference in the functioning of judiciary should be through carefully delineated methods of institutional accountability contained in the Constitution while ensuring that the credibility of the justice system brooks no restrictions. In the absence of an innately credible justice system, which ensures courts are respected for their judgments, rule of law itself becomes illusionary.