Reporting Courts: An analysis of reports by legal correspondents after the workshop

Fresh from the workshop, I was tempted to read the legal stories in the newspapers in the light of what one learnt from the Judges and senior advocates.

Here is a sample of how newspapers reported the same story and how they ought to have covered if the legal journalists who wrote them adopted the lessons imparted to them at the workshop.

Story: The hearing of the Salwa Judum case in the CJI’s Court on March 31.

The Hindu: Headline: Supreme Court disapproves of arming Salwa Judum
Intro: The Supreme Court on Monday expressed its disapproval of the constitution of the Salwa Judum (self defence groups) by the Chhattisgarh Government and giving them arms to tackle the naxal menace. (The rest of the story is fine, I have problems only with the headline and the intro)

Hindustan Times: Headline: ‘State abetting murder through Judum’
Intro: The Supreme Court on Monday said that a state government cannot supply arms to private persons and abet a murder. The rest of the story attributes all remarks to the Bench headed by Chief Justice.

Times of India:
Headline: SC takes dim view of arming civilians to fight Naxalites.
Intro: The Chhattisgarh government may have to think of an alternative to village defence groups (salva judum) soon, for the Supreme Court on Monday disapproved arming of private persons by state government to tackle the Naxal menace. (the rest of the story attributes to the remarks to a Bench comprising CJ and Justice Altab Alam.

Mail Today:
Headline: Salwa Judum movement under apex court scanner
Intro: The controversial salwa judum movement against Naxalites in Chhattisgarh has come under the judicial scanner with the Supreme Court deciding to send a fact finding team to access the ground realities in the BJP-ruled State. (The rest of the story attributes the remarks to a Bench headed by Chief Justice.)

Indian Express:
Headline: Hearing plea against Salwa Judum, SC says State cannot arm civilians to kill
Intro: The Salwa Judum movement in Chhattisgarh wherein civilians allegedly armed by the State, counter Naxalites has come under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court which today observed: “You (the state) cannot give arms to somebody and allow him to kill”. (The rest of the story attributes the remarks collectively to the Bench comprising the CJI and Justice Alam).

It is clear that most of the journalists who wrote these stories assumed that the Supreme Court had already reached the conclusion that Salwa Judum was illegal. It is exactly this kind of assumption the Judges wanted the journalists to guard against. The CJI who made the remarks, probably made it, to elicit the response from the ASG. It is a case which is being heard. How could the SC disapprove it, before hearing the other party. The ASG said the Centre had asked the National Institute of Criminology to study and report on the ground situation in the State. “A comprehensive reply would soon be filed by the Centre”. The CJI probably expressed his prima facie view on the issue, which is legitimate and a sensible one. I defend his view, but can it be said that was his conclusion, when the case was yet to be heard fully?

Most journalists also have the tendency to attribute the observations to the Bench collectively, rather than to the individual Judges who made them. I don’t know the origin of this practice, but I find it very odd and lacking any professional justification. The other extreme trend is to attribute everything to the Supreme court itself, not even to the Bench, which is even more inexplicable than the attribution to the Bench. Of all these stories, I would suggest the Mail Today story passes the objectivity test, evolved by the Judges at the workshop.

On comparison, I studied how a case, which is being heard in the American Supreme Court has been reported in New York Times. The reporter, Linda Greenhouse, identifies the individual Judge who made the remark or asked the question to a counsel and the context of the hearing comes out in her story remarkably.

On another note, Justice Katju’s observations against judicial activism today cannot be attributed to the Court, not even to the Bench of which he was a part. Can his views be termed tentative, as Prashant Bhushan,the counsel who argued before him, kept reminding him? (Because a larger Bench has been entrusted with the task of reviewing Justice Katju’s decision in Aravalli case) While I would call CJI’s views on Salwa Judum as tentative, Justice Katju, because of his earlier remarks on the same subject, may have less claims to openness than his Chief Justice.

UPDATE:: Reporting of Justice Katju’s observations in today’s newspapers (April 2) only vindicates the other Supreme Court Judges’ misgivings about journalists. At the workshop, one of the Judges asked journalists to avoid mentioning the name of the Judge and the PIL petitioner-counsel, while reporting such observations. I know it is difficult to accept that advice, but the totally distorted reports on the front page of the Hindustan Times, and the inside pages of Times of India on Justice Katju’s observations do make one think whether the Judge who gave such advice was vindicated. The Hindustan Times makes Justice Katju’s observations on the cleaning of Yamuna as its lead story and gives the impression to the reader as if Justice Katju is backed by all the Judges of the Supreme Court.

There is no mention about his growing isolation on this issue within the Supreme Court. It is a clear instance of sensationalisation. It gives the impression that the Court/Judge had reached the conclusion about intervention in the Yamuna clean-up case after a study. There is no mention about the other Bench hearing the case, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, its findings etc. I would not support the blacking out the names of the Judge and the counsel/petitioner in the PIL cases. But at least the reporter concerned must understand the context and report it accurately.

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