The seer and the media verdict

IN Media Practice | 19/01/2005
The increasing ubiquity of TV and print media poses a constant challenge to the judiciary in negotiating the tight rope of administering justice.


Dasu Krishnamoorty


There have been several confrontations between the two powerful institutions - media and judiciary - arising largely from issues related to power. Wah India and Arundhati Roy’s cases are two recent instances of one-upmanship staged by both the sides, each trying to test the other’s strength.


While both media and judiciary are resourceful enough to defend their space, there is a huge community that, while it can defend itself in a court of law, has no means of fighting off a trial by media. A media trial is untenable because media has no structures similar to those of the judiciary to guarantee a fair hearing for the aggrieved or the accused. More often than not media prosecutes and delivers a ruling without the formality of a hearing. Victims have the sole option of seeking court intervention for prior restraint but courts are reluctant to restrain media unless they see a threat to their own credibility.


With neither media nor the judiciary having a stake in Sankaracharya’s case, there is hardly any need for them to show more interest in it than the occasion demands. The Supreme Court’s action of transferring the Best Bakery case to Mumbai courts was based on the presumption that the Gujarat courts failed to act fairly. The repeated rejection of the Seer’s bail petition in all courts in Tamil Nadu raises the same presumption regarding justice to the Seer. The failure of the lower courts to point out to the prosecutor the lapses the Supreme Court had cited in granting bail, generates uncomfortable questions that media at least should have asked.


The increasing ubiquity of TV and print media poses a constant challenge to the judiciary in negotiating the tight rope of administering justice. Media reporting of courts derives its legitimacy from the need for judicial transparency. Because of the plethora of laws, reporting courts is as hazardous as administration of justice. If what appears in media is likely to interfere with the course of pending litigation, courts earn the right to restrict freedom of expression. In their anxiety to seem to be liberal or to remain on the right side of media, judges tend to be lenient in the disposal of cases against media. This judicial indulgence often leads to a low level of media restraint, evident from apparent bias in reporting both Sankaracharya and Best Bakery cases.


From the moment of the Seer’s arrest at Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh, TV channels began unleashing a relentless barrage of negative images about the Seer. An hour-by-hour commentary marked TV coverage. Repeatedly showing the Sankaracharya entering or leaving a court or a police station surrounded by armed policemen created an assumption of criminality that no amount of denials in print media can undo. The channels suddenly started showering attention on a Tamil writer who complained of Seer’s misbehaviour with her more than ten years ago. In contrast, another woman, Usha, supposedly friendly with the Seer, was always shown on her way to a police station. Dravidian TV channels reveled in this game of imposing guilt in a case where even the charge sheet is not ready.


This selective coverage peaked when these TV channels aired video clips of the police interrogating the Seer. Since there is a TV news bulletin at any given time of the day, the images of the Seer’s discomfiture came on the small screen as frequently as those of the raid on Karunanidhi’s house a couple of years ago. In the eye of the public, the Sankaracharya is already a criminal, thanks to TV. This revelry is exclusive of the several TV debates on the Seer’s arrest where participants clearly took sides. Taking sides is natural in a debate. Whether judges saw these images and reacted is not the question here. It is about running visual and print commentaries about a person who has no means of countering them. The function of media is to report what is happening, and not ‘create’ a happening and then report it like the Tehelka TV team did.


Referring to the Tamil press and TV, an Eenadu columnist said that if one had read or watched them, he or she would believe that the Sankaracharya is a playboy or that he keeps a harem. One Tamil news bulletin reeled off names of half a dozen girls, suggesting their close relationship with the Math. While the police and the Special Investigation Team indiscriminately summoned people merely on the basis of media reports, the latter returned the courtesy by publishing police stories without verification or skepticism. The judiciary failed to warn both media and police against publishing or telecasting hearsay. There was not a whimper of media protest when the SIT summoned a well-known columnist for The New Indian Express S. Gurumurthy. The media missed the warning the summons contained: do not write anything against the police.


Newspapers that have refrained from making any comment on the Kanchi case, made it up by reporting news in a manner subtly indicative of judgment. They solely relied on police versions or on interviews with alleged victims of the Seer and steered clear of the uncomfortable questions that Fali Nariman asked in the Supreme Court. The eminent lawyer asked simple and basic questions any reader of a newspaper would ask. This kind of coverage is influential in forming beliefs and creating first impressions. As an expert says, "First beliefs often display an aversion to change." Though judges shun social life for obvious reasons, they still read newspapers and watch TV. Unless judges are Gods, they are bound to react to media content while drawing inferences from the evidence presented and arriving at conclusions. There is a history of judges acting on the basis of a letter or on what appears in media. Media should pay attention to this vulnerability of judges, which in turn affects what they pronounce.


The media response to the arrest of Sankaracharya evoked greater concern than the arrest itself. First, the media failed to honour their own prescription that "the law should take its course" and second, media reporting came very close to undisguised partisanship. Editors are literate enough to know that both the manner of reporting and editorial comments they make are likely to condition the minds of the judges, however much the latter insulate themselves against such comment. Judges know that they are as human as the Sankaracharya or Zahira Sheikh is. This knowledge that they are fallible helps them to carefully walk the tight rope of judicial administration. Media have a duty to help the judges walk the tight rope.


By ignoring simple principles of journalism that even readers know, journalists provided strength to readers’ complaints of deliberate bias. Several Hindu readers wrote letters to the editor on a single day (18 Nov. 04) that show what ideal reporting of high profile trials should be. S. Rajappa from Chennai wrote: "The verdict passed by some sections of the media on charges that are yet to be proved in a court is a blatant misuse of the freedom of the press. The evidence adduced and the names of alleged co-conspirators published in the media quoting ‘reliable’ sources, when the prosecution is yet to make out a case, defies the rule of law." A.Ranganathan from Chennai wrote: "The case should not be speculated upon by the media lest it prejudice a free trial. We find TV channels interviewing a whole lot of people painting the Kanchi Math and the Acharya in such lurid colours as to deny the Seer a fair trial." R.Rajagopalan from Chennai again: "The verdict passed by some sections of the media is alarming. The Acharya is entitled to his dignity in arrest. Any attack on him is tantamount to prejudicing the case against him." Note how none of the readers has asked that the Seer be exempted from due process of law. They merely pointed out to media how legal proceedings should be covered.


Their dedication to ‘let the law take its course’ motto notwithstanding, both The Times of India and The Hindu left nobody in doubt regarding their perceptions of Jayalalithaa’s action against the Seer. In its very first editorial response, the Times tied itself in knots saying ‘some laws can take their own course, not all.’ Even as the editorial described law as an ass, it failed to pronounce if it is one in the case of Sankaracharya. There is also no clue on what those some laws are that can take their course. The Times explained why the law is an ass: because "it allows you to marry at 21 but not to drink till you are 25" or because "the law mandates that rickshaw-owners in Delhi have to ply the rickshaws themselves and cannot rent them out." But when the law is an ass, it must be led down the right road, the Times said.  Did Rajiv Gandhi lead the Supreme Court down the right road when he amended the Constitution to nullify the Apex court verdict in Shah Bano case or did Indira Gandhi do the same thing when she got all the cases filed by the previous government against her withdrawn?


The Hindu in its very first editorial (13 Nov. 04) on the case endorsed Jayalalitha’s message "that nobody, however high in temporal or religious matters, shall be above the law." Very rightly, the editorial also acknowledged, "no public presumption of guilt should be made at this stage." But very soon it was lending credence to the police version, saying, "Nevertheless, the facts investigated and reported by the press, notably the Tamil magazine Nakkeeran, speak to a brutal and motivated murder; a crude attempt to cover up; and what seemed initially to be non-serious investigation." Nine days later, a second editorial said, "In rejecting the bail application on Saturday, the High Court clearly acted on the same principle of equality before law." This commendation amounts to an approval of the criteria that Fali Nariman had successfully contested in the Supreme Court. It was clearly too early to be delivering private judgments since the trial had not even begun.


Edit page articles also suggested that the Sankaracharya could possibly have committed the crime he was charged with because he had tried to mediate in the Ayodhya dispute; because he ran schools and hospitals etc; because he wanted to go abroad against the traditions of the Math and because he once disappeared from the Math without informing anyone. Can any court in the country entertain these facts as substantiating the murder theory?


Clearly, one course for media and their columnists is to let the law take its course and refrain from making any comment likely to influence its course. If they have clinching evidence, they could pass it on to the prosecution for use against the Seer. The alternative is to report comprehensively without leaving gaps and to comment from the periphery without bias. There is a striking imbalance in the interest media and their columnists have taken between the Kanchi seer’s case and the Best Bakery case. They have communalized both cases by questionable journalistic techniques.


From the attention media paid and is paying to the Acharya’s case, it is evident that everyone is not equal in the eyes of media. A wag may ask, "Does it matter if everyone is not equal in the eyes of law?" The judiciary itself is guilty of flouting this equality norm when they fine or jail persons for defamation or contempt of court and let journalists off the hook after accepting an apology or issuing a warning. 


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