New Delhi, Sept. 11: Courts have the power to postpone media coverage of a criminal trial for a short duration if they feel there is a “clear and present danger” to the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the Supreme Court ruled today.
“Freedom of expression is not an absolute value under our Constitution,” a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia said in a much-awaited judgment.
It added that the top court or the high courts would decide the matter on a case-to-case basis “suo motu (by themselves) or on being approached”.
Legal experts were unsure whether such media curbs might not play into the hands of influential defendants, or further overburden the courts with applications from accused seeking such coverage constraints.
Some lawyers felt such a safeguard was needed at a time continuous TV coverage often risked prejudicing cases against the accused. Some others said the judgment was just a reaffirmation of the courts’ powers of protecting accused from unfair publicity.
The bench, however, clarified that orders for postponement of coverage should be for a limited duration and must not disturb the content of the publication.
“They should be passed only when necessary to prevent real and substantial risk to the fairness of the trial, if reasonable alternative methods or measures such as change of venue or postponement of trial will not prevent the risk,” the bench said.
A court should pass such an order only if its salutary effects outweigh the deleterious impact such a restraint may have on the right to free speech and expression, Justice Kapadia said.
The case had generated much curiosity as it had pitted the famously reclusive Chief Justice against the media. Justice Kapadia’s decision to have the matter debated by a Constitution bench for weeks together was seen as an attempt to gag the media, a theory set to rest by today’s judgment.
The verdict came on an application from Sahara, which claimed that media reports on how the company proposed to secure its liabilities had hurt its interests. It alleged that reportage of its offer to the Securities and Exchange Board of India was tantamount to a breach of confidentiality.
“‘Open justice’ is the cornerstone of our judicial system. It instils faith in the judicial system. However, the right to open justice is not absolute. It can be restricted by the court… if the necessities of administration of justice so demand,” the court said.