Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Advocate-associations keep raising new demands, as if they believe they are masters of the judiciary.

NP Rajendran| Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 21:35

It all started on 19 July this year. Journalists, some of them daily visitors to the court for the last two or three decades were attacked by advocates at the Kerala High Court premises over some trivial issue. It was repeated the very next day at the High Court and also at several lower courts.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan intervened, called meetings of the bar and media organisations, discussed issues and later announced that all differences have been sorted out. But nothing changed in the court premises.
Advocate associations proved that they cared neither a hoot for the decisions taken at the meeting called by the Chief Minister, nor about public opinion. And finally, last week they proved that they did not give a damn about the Chief Justice of the High Court too.
The decisions taken in the meeting called by the Chief Justice, the personal appeals made by him were not valued a bit. Eight journalists, including three women were rounded up, abused and threatened inside the High Court compound. They were virtually pushed out from the citadel of law, justice and peace.
Two and a half months have passed since the so-called open courts in Kerala have become closed courts. No journalist goes there to report court proceedings. Even court functions like seminars are not reported. Only judicial orders, of which short summaries are released online, reach media institutions.
The irony is that there are -at present- no pending disputes between advocates and journalists. Issues and differences that were discussed and disputed in the beginning have become obsolete or irrelevant as time passed.
Advocate-associations however keep raising new demands, as if they believe they are masters of the judiciary.  They have started teaching the media on what to report, what not to report, how to report and who would report.  
During the past three months, the state Advocate General, as decided in the presence of the Chief Minister, had called for three meetings of the media management representatives, the journalists’ union and the advocates’ association leaders.
The media had only one demand- that they be allowed to continue using the facilities that existed in the High Court to do their job.  But, advocate-association leaders raised new demands, some of which goes to the extent of limiting the freedom of speech of the mediapersons and the right to information of the people.
In the first meeting called by the Advocate General in the first week of July, with several media owners present, Bar Association leaders waved a newspaper carrying a cartoon. What they wanted was an assurance from the media owners that they disallow cartoons and such other satirical content -even on TV channels- ridiculing advocates in any form.
Another office bearer of the association -in a letter published in a magazine- wanted a system to ‘screen’ all news about and from judicial institutions. Whether it was to be a sort of censorship, he alone knows.  Yet another demand was that there must be a system, wherein the court be allowed to choose journalists who would report all court news.
Mediapersons, who had always sought and gained the support of the judiciary in upholding the constitutional right of the freedom of the press, were shocked to hear demands that blatantly questioned the freedom of the press, being raised by persons who are supposed to be experts in the law.
One thing is sure: nowhere in the democratic world would any legally trained, knowledgeable person nurse such undemocratic ideas, let alone raise these in public forums. 
Only a few advocates, mostly youngsters with not much of a legal standing, behaved in such hawkish and violent forms in the beginning. But, soon they succeeded in creating the impression among the lawyer fraternity, that mediapersons were questioning the rights and privileges of the advocates and claiming equal rights in the court.
Egoistic eyebrows were raised when judges who sometimes refused to meet advocates in their chamber, were very liberal in allotting time to meet journalists who came to get clarifications.
The hate campaign was so successful that in the last meeting called by the new Chief Justice  Mohan M. Shantanagoudar, one  senior judge went to the extent of stating that the High Court was functioning very smoothly, since journalists had stopped coming to court for reporting.
The Chief Justice and other judges soon realized the gravity of the unconstitutional implication of the statement, and were quick in maintaining that it was made in a jocular spirit.  
The Chief Justice went on to assure that henceforth no one will prevent mediapersons from coming to court. He pleaded with the advocate-leaders to forgive and forget and allow peace to prevail.
Not much of friendship and cordiality prevailed when they bid good bye, because the advocates insisted that five journalists who they named, should not be allowed to come to the court to report.
Since none were willing to comply, the Chief Justice left the matter hanging, with a last and final plea for good sense to prevail on both sides.
What happened the next day left everyone pondering on what exactly is brewing in the judicial system. A few people donned in robes approached the journalists, and asked them to leave the court immediately. “We will beat you if you don’t leave, and we mean it,” they threatened.
The journalists left, after submitting a complaint to the Registrar.  Of course, the police offered them protection…not to do their duty, but to stop them doing their duty.
And that was the end of the wait of a hundred days and the outcome of appeals by former judges, senior leaders and other members of the civil society, for a peaceful settlement of the dispute that had seriously affected the cordial relations between members the third and fourth estates.
It was proved once again, that inside the High Court, there is no authority to maintain peace; there is no rule or law, and that what reigns is simple muscle power. Just imagine what would have been the outcry, if such a thing had happened at the Collectorate, Secretariat, police headquarters or even on a college campus!
It may be sheer coincidence, but the advocates’ agitation that erupted at the same time in the Chennai High Court premises, cannot be treated as unrelated. In both situations, it can be seen that the organized section of the advocates have been exerting their muscle power to ensure their writ runs in the judicial realms, so as to protect petty group interests.
Several thousand lawyers picketed the court campus to pressurize the court to withdraw its notification amending the Advocates’ Act that empowers debarring of erring lawyers. What would have been the hue and cry made, if some other group had done this to pressurize the court! 
Advocates are part and parcel of the judiciary, but they are not the decision-makers in the legal set-up. They can only argue; they are not the ones to decide what is right and wrong. That power rests with the presiding judges.  Judges are few in number, and the attempt was to take over their powers through numerical strength and organisation might.
There are around six thousand advocates in the High Court of Kerala and just two dozen judges. There were instances of groups of advocates stopping judges’ cars and heckling to humiliate them in the court compound.
It is high time the Bar Council of India and Press Council of India sit together and give shape to conventions and systems that ensure the right and duty of the fourth estate in covering the other estates of Indian democracy, especially the judiciary.
Freedom of the press cannot be left to the whims and fancies of individuals even if they are from the legal profession. Freedom of the press constitutes both the right to speak and also the citizen’s right to know.
They are the real makers of our Constitution and their basic rights should not -in any situation- be compromised just to satisfy the petty egos of organized groups, be they advocates or journalist
Published in

News from Kerala courts go ‘missing’, campaign by lawyers against media must stop

NP Rajendran| Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 19:02

The media in Kerala is yet to report on this. Newspaper readers or television viewers may not have noticed it yet, but the sad reality is that for the past few weeks, there is hardly any news from the courts.
One cannot differentiate between the visual or print media or even the language in this case. Even the fact that mediapersons are not being allowed to report on ‘court’ happenings has not made it to the news.
Since the lawyers have been physically stopping and even assaulting journalists, major legal stories have not been making headlines in recent days. 
What happens in court usually goes beyond the gambit of news and is actually relevant to the masses in their everyday lives. It is through the media that the public, and at times even the advocates themselves, come to know of all those who have or who have not been found guilty before the law, about the various ways in which existing laws can be interpreted or even the formulation of new laws.
This essential process forms an integral part of how legally aware are the partakers of a democratic society, which has long recognized the Fourth Estate as one of the democratic pillars that comprise informed citizenship. This is what has now come to a standstill.
All this is a result of what apparently then seemed an incidental clash between two sets of workers a month ago. Normally, a conflict between a group of lawyers and journalists would have been resolved through talks.
One would have thought that especially after the Chief Minister called for a conciliatory meeting and made district-wise arrangements to deal with similar conflicts in future, all matters would have been resolved in this regard.
But what was seen the very next day were reports of journalists being stopped at the Kozhikode court by a sub-inspector who went on to arrest them and treat them like criminals.
No coincidence at all
Within minutes of the Chief Minister having termed the said incident as a tiff between the police and the journalists and that advocates had no role in it, advocates of the Kozhikode court proved him wrong.
The press note released by the Kerala Bar Association stating that the district judge had instructed the sub-inspector to do the same on the request of the lawyers themselves made this very evident.
It was also proof that the lawyers cared a hoot for the Chief Minister’s directives in the matter. One can only draw consolation in the fact that what happened at Kozhikode was nothing compared to the shocking incident played out at the Thiruvananthapuram court premises, where a group of lawyers had physically assaulted journalists without any provocation whatsoever.
No reporter now goes to Kerala courts to report from there. Whether this is based on an official decision by the media or journalist organizations is not known. They don’t go because they are scared of being beaten up. The police are not willing to ensure their safety within the court premises. Even if one percent of the lawyers present in the court indulge in ‘goondaism’, journalists will simply be unable to even set foot there.
Subsequent events prove that what happened at the Kerala High Court and the Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode district courts were all part of a well-thought out agenda to effectively black out the media.
The points that were raised during the journalists-lawyers’ meeting called by the Advocate General to sort out the issue would make anyone who believes in upholding media freedom and independence in journalism deeply concerned.
A Bar Association leader waved a copy of the first page of a leading Malayalam newspaper that carried a cartoon drawn by Kerala’s leading cartoonist, and demanded that the media must promise that such cartoons would not be published anymore.
Even a child knows about how our former Prime Minister the late Jawaharlal Nehru had asked one of our very own cartoonists to not spare even him!
Another demand was that the daily satirical programmes aired on regional channels should not make any sarcastic reference to lawyers. There were other similar demands too.
One should not have to consider dealing with such matters in the middle of a reconciliation talk, as these were not the reasons why the conflict happened in the first place. And the lawyers were not ready to talk about the actual reasons, as these had now become sub judice.
We should not forget that trouble had started with the media having reported on a sexual harassment case and the police action on the same.
Mediapersons and Media Owners
The Bar Association then wanted a separate meeting with media owners too present. The demands raised by the lawyers this time left all those who heard them unsure of whether to laugh or to cry.
One such demand was that it was the court which would choose the journalists who would report from the court premises. Nowhere in the world would any lawyer association belonging to any court make such a demand of the media.
That the lawyers had insisted on the presence of the media owners during the talks was downright insulting and one that questioned the self-respect of the journalists. Journalist organizations chose not to respond and simply gulped them down the humiliation, as they wanted the stalemate to end.
What exactly do the lawyers want to prove? That the media does not have the freedom to report and that it should toe their line? Is that the freedom of speech and independence of media -promised by the Indian Constitution- that the courts upheld all these years? Or was it to tell the media barons that even when journalists filed such stories, they ought to ensure that these never saw the light of the day?
The law clearly states that journalists and not media barons are responsible for the contents of a newspaper.  The owners only have a say in the broader policies of their publication. Are the lawyers who have cleared their bar exams really not aware of the same?
The last page of most newspapers carries the name of the editor according to the Press and Registration of the Books Act. And this is not just a mere technicality. It is also a journalistic principle accepted by the democratic world.
Journalism is just like any other profession be it that of a lawyer, teacher, doctor or engineer. The very basis of the Fourth Estate is the professional autonomy that it enjoys.
What the Press Council says
This is what the Press Council of India that is headed by former judges of the Supreme Court and recognized by the Indian Parliament and functioning according to the law of the land has to say:
“Once the owner lays down the policy of the newspaper for general guidance, neither he nor anybody on his behalf can interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the editor and the journalistic staff working under him. It is well established that the freedom of the press is essentially the freedom of the people to be informed accurately and adequately on all issues, problems, events and developments.  In discharge of the editorial functions, the editor is supreme and superior even to the owner. The independence of the newspaper is essentially the independence of the editor from all internal and external restrictions.  Unless the editor enjoys this freedom, he will be unable to discharge his primary duty which is to the people, and without such freedom, he can be held responsible in law for all that appears in the newspaper.”
What becomes crystal clear here is the blatant misuse of power and miscarriage of justice by the advocates.  That news from the courts does not make it to the papers will not have an effect on journalists, media owners, newspaper-vendors or even the salaries drawn by any of them.
But media freedom will definitely be impacted. This poses a challenge to the public’s right to know and seems to be consciously aimed at curbing it. It hence becomes a matter of concern for not just the media, but society as a whole.
Ministers need no longer be scared
It gradually dawns on one that this seems to be part of a game-plan by powerful vested interests tainted by corruption, violence, sexual abuse and other legal and ethical violations. A few lawyers consciously and a majority of them unconsciously are party to such manipulation.
The aim is not to just make journalists stay away from the courts. What is the need for reporters to come here to file their reports was a question posed by the lawyers. We will submit written reports for publication was their line of reasoning, which seemed to harbour the unsaid motive of letting the public know only what the men in black themselves deemed fit.
It is not the final judgement delivered by the courts, but the questions posed by the judges and their opinions that have shaped the course of many a political happening in the state. The resignations of former state finance minister KM Mani and many other ministers were all based on remarks made by the respected judiciary.
So obviously, when court happenings are not reported, politicians have nothing to fear. In this case too, the hate campaign against the media is part of protecting the culprits who flaunt their powerful connections to walk scot-free, despite being an accused in cases of corruption and sexual abuse.
Such people would definitely not extend their support for anything that guarantees media freedom.  What makes the present situation even graver is the fact that these are the very people who offer legal advice to those in power.
 Published in on August 23, 2016 
Here is the link to my article in EPW online on the same subject on 
27th Oct, 2016 
 Rising Threat to Press Freedom from the Corridors of Judiciary

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