A debate on right to report

BY N P Chekkutty| IN Law and Policy | 10/07/2012
Several media houses have been dragged to court over the coverage given to T.P. Chandrasekharan murder case.
Media in a democracy cannot be tied down under archaic rules, says N P CHEKKUTTY
Is it right on the part of the media to report on the criminal investigations in a case once a first information report (FIR) has been filed before a magistrate, and how far the media ought to be restricted in such reporting done presumably in public interest which might, at the same time, prejudice the interests of the accused or those likely to be accused in a criminal case? This is an issue which will be considered by the Kerala High Court as it takes up three writ petitions alleging contempt of court against a number of prominent media organisations filed in the court in the past few weeks, following the intensive media reporting on a murder case in which a rebel CPM leader T.P. Chandrasekharan was hacked to death.

The murder took place at a remote village, Onchiyam, near Vatakara, in Kozhikode district, around 9.30 p.m. on May 4, 2012. Chandrasekharan (51), a popular political activist, was waylaid as he was going home, by a gang of hired goons who chased him in a car, struck him down from his motorcycle, and attacked him with machetes and swords repeatedly, causing his death almost instantly. A leader of the CPM until three years ago, he had left the party on political grounds, formed a rival outfit called Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), took on the CPM in the Lok Sabha and local panchayat elections and defeated their candidates with huge margins despite many threats and physical attacks on himself and his followers.

The incident shocked Kerala, and public attention was riveted on the investigation, being conducted by a special investigation team of Kerala Police led by its Additional Director-General Vinson M. Paul, an upright and highly acclaimed police officer. In the two months of investigation, the team had arrested more than 70 people including almost all the members of the alleged gang of hired goons, a large number of people accused of having helped the culprits escape from the scene of crime and gave them shelter to remain hidden from police dragnet both within and outside the State, a number of local as well as higher-level political activists of the CPM in the village and the two districts of Kozhikode and Kannur alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy and planning of the murder, besides seizing the weapons allegedly used in the crime, the vehicles used by the assailants,  the blood soaked clothes, the cell phones and other equipment used, etc., as materials in evidence.
A record

All the newspapers and television channels in the State have been covering the incident from day one, and all matters related to the case, including police investigation, court proceedings, reports on conspiracies and political muck-raking remained front page and prime time material incessantly for the past two months, a record in recent media history. Many newspapers had put special correspondents in the village, and many 24-hour news channels stationed live-feed teams to follow up the story round-the-clock in view of the intense public interest and political significance of the developments.

The political significance of the story has never been in doubt, as from the initial days itself the two top-most leaders of the CPM, its State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, and its most popular  leader and former chief minister V S Achuthanandan had taken divergent and directly contradictory views on the murder case. They even clashed in the public, forcing the central leadership of the party to intervene and broker a peace, seldom honoured by both sides. For example, as Pinarayi Vijayan called the slain man a “renegade”, Achuthanandan described him a “bold communist”.  Asked about his party secretary’s view, Achuthanandan said the secretary’s opinion was not the final word in the party. While none of the important CPM leaders cared to pay their respects to their former party comrade as his body was laid to rest, Achuthanandan not only laid a wreath on the body in Calicut but also visited the family members of the deceased at Onchiyam and paid his homage. And he chose the day of polling in a crucial by-election at the Neyyattinkara Assembly Constituency for the high-profile visit, which is believed to have had a serious impact on the voter turnout, adding to the party’s discomfiture.

The incident divided not the party, but the civil society and media commentators were also divided and were fighting against one another in the aftermath. In the prime-time news hours, commentator after commentator brought up arguments running down the CPM as more and more of its members and sympathisers were being arrested, while another band of commentators, who defended the party, came down heavily on the mainstream media accusing them of making a determined effort to finish off the party over an isolated incident of the murder of an individual, one among the hundreds of murders that take place in the State every year.
The defence strategy of the CPM in the aftermath of the murder and the exposure of its cadres’ alleged involvement in the affairs and the scorching media coverage was to run down the media as anti-party and question their credibility and locus standi in the entire episode. The familiar criticism of the mainstream media as a syndicate, working together and conspiring to devise plans to deliberately malign and defame the CPM was unleashed again in a series of seminars and public meetings all over the State, in which party leaders and intellectuals who supported it repeated these arguments. The atmosphere became so vitiated and the campaign against the media so virulent that towards the end of June, when a senior CPM leader was being produced before the magistrate in Vatakara, following his arrest on charges of a conspiracy linked to the murder, a group of enraged CPM supporters assaulted the camera team of a well-known Malayalam channel, India Vision, causing injuries to some.

It was in these circumstances that the contempt of court petitions were filed in the High Court, one after the other raising similar complaints and arguments against the media coverage of the investigation into the case. The first petition alleging contempt of court on the part of the media and the police officials in charge of the investigation, was filed by the secretary of CPM Kozhikode district committee, T. P. Ramakrishnan, which came up before the Division Bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice A. M. Shefeeque, on June 1, 2012, and notices were issued to the respondents, Director General of Police Jacob Punnose, ADGP Vinson M.Paul, and all major newspapers and television news channels operating from Kerala. The respondents included Philip Mathew, managing editor, Malayala Manorama; Mammen Mathew, chief editor, Malayala Manorama; M. Kesava Menon, editor, Mathrubhumi; P V Chandran, managing editor, Mathrubhumi; O. Abdurahman, editor, Madhyamam; Jamaludheen Farooqui, resident editor, India Vision; M P Basheer, executive editor, India Vision; M V Nikesh Kumar, managing director, Reporter TV; T N Gopakumar, chief editor, Asianet News; Jayanth Mammen Mathew, managing director, Manorama News TV, Johny Lukose, editor, Manorama News TV, and a few others.  
Subsequently, similar petitions were filed by Ms. Yesodha, wife of K. K. Krishnan, and P. Anitha, wife of C H Asokan, two leaders of the CPM Onchiyam area committee, arrested in connection with the murder case, with the respondents being the same. Anitha’s petition, filed on July 5, 2012, has included Siddharth Varadarajan, editor, The Hindu, and K. Balaji, its publisher, as respondents in addition to the above. All petitions will be considered together for hearing, once the respondents file their affidavits in their defence.

The petition filed by the CPM Kozhikode district committee secretary argues that the media organisations, with connivance of the senior police officers, were reporting on the details of the investigation into the Chandrasekharan murder case in violation of a ruling from the Kerala High Court, dated December 22, 2010, restraining media from such coverage after the filing of an FIR in a case, which had put the CPM in poor light and had caused damage to its public image.  
The lawyer for the CPM in this case, Mr. P. V. Kunhikkannan, in an article published in Deshabhimani, the CPM official organ, has argued that reporting on the case was violative of Section 172 of the Criminal Procedure Code, and the order of Justice V. Ramkumar of the Kerala High Court in a case relating to another murder, where the media was cautioned against irresponsible and frivolous reporting while the police investigation was on. Such reporting might cause injury to the discharge of justice and hence the media ought to observe caution and circumspection while reporting on such sensitive matters once an FIR had been lodged.

These contempt of court petitions have received much public attention in Kerala, as they impinge upon the fundamental aspects of media functioning in a democracy. It has been pointed out that Sec.172 of Cr.P.C. has its origin in 1898, which served a colonial administration seeking to prevent a nationalist media from reporting on its activities, a practice that had been continued by the rulers of independent India, as the law had been ratified by Parliament in 1973. Hence the intention of the CPM in filing contempt of court case against the media organisations has been to uphold the rule of law and the sanctity of laws now prevailing in the country and not to harass or impede media freedom, says the article published in Deshabhimani, in defence of the party’s move.

Deliberate move
But most commentators feel it was a move deliberately launched by a party cornered in a criminal case, to prevent the media from discharging their duties by providing information to the public in a democratic society. It has been pointed out that the 2010 order of the High Court was issued in the case of a private individual, where the media reportage was alleged to have been prejudicial to the interests of the persons involved, while the present case relates to a murder with clear political motives allegedly planned and executed with the active support of a major political party. Hence a vigilant public, following the case in its minute details on a day-to-day basis is the only safeguard for the proper and impartial conduct of the investigation which will serve the ends of justice, especially as vested interests are making an all out effort to scuttle the investigation.

In an article published in Mathrubhumi on June 6, senior lawyer P. S. Sreedharan Pillai argues that the CPM’s move to bring contempt of court proceedings against media organisations was in contravention to the declared position of the party itself on the citizen’s right to information and the irrelevance of the archaic law of contempt of court in India. He points out that the CPM argument that once the FIR was filed in a case, no media reporting should to be allowed as the matter would be sub judice is an action that brings to mind the eerie days of internal Emergency during 1975-77 when such absurd arguments were brought against the free functioning of the media.

(N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist based in Calicut, is editor, Thejas, a daily newspaper in Malayalam.)

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