Attacks on journalists- A.G. Noorani

| Opinion | 

IN many places, bashing media persons seems to have become the order of the day. The chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, has been constrained to write letters to the chief ministers of a good few states warning them of the consequences of failure to protect journalists from physical attacks.

He wrote to the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir Omar Abdullah referring to allegations of assault on four reporters by the police but drew a rude reply. He received a positive response from the chief minister of Maharashtra Prithviraj Chavan. Protests were sent also to the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Chattisgarh.

The nadir was reached on March 2 in Bangalore. At least 20 media persons and police personnel were injured when they were attacked by, of all persons, lawyers, and that too in the premises of the city’s civil court. They singled out the crew of the electronic media for particular attention. They were assaulted and their expensive cameras and other equipment smashed.

The media’s coverage of the protest staged by lawyers, last January, highlighted the huge traffic gridlock in the nerve centre of the city and the anger voiced by ordinary citizens. The protesters’ lack of any sense of responsibility stood exposed.

This time, on March 2, media personnel, especially from TV, had come in strength to cover the appearance in court of a mining baron G. Janardhan Reddy who faces charges of illegal mining.

Media coverage had contributed a lot to his ouster as minister in the state government. Advocates objected to TV crew and photographers from the print media trying to film Reddy getting out of a car to proceed to court, when all hell broke loose.

The media is not only entitled as of right to cover such events but is bound to do so as a matter of public duty. Photographers, like TV crew, face greater danger. They have to protect expensive cameras as well as their own lives and limbs because a single photograph or TV frame can be more damning than words in cold print.

In the wake of this rash of media attacks, controversy erupted on whether special protective legislation is called for. It is argued by some that an assault on a journalist is no different from an assault on any other citizen. Ergo, no special legislation is called for. The objection is groundless for three good reasons.

First, such a law will itself send out a message to all that the attacks cannot be allowed to persist and will serve as a deterrent to lawbreakers.

Secondly, the Penal Code is studded with provisions which impose greater punishment for offences committed in special circumstances. For example, joining an unlawful assembly while armed with a deadly weapon carries greater punishment than mere membership of an unlawful assembly. There are half a dozen provisions on various kinds of ‘negligent conduct’ affecting public health, each in its own distinctive way. Forgery of court record is treated more seriously than forgery of any other kind.

Which brings us to the last reason which is of a fundamental character. A journalist is attacked because he is discharging a public duty, not for personal reasons. He represents an institution — the Fourth Estate. Constitutions draw a distinction between freedom of speech guaranteed to every citizen and freedom of the press. It is an institutional right available to members of an institution.

There was a time during the Raj, when the Privy Council ruled that the rights of the journalist are no greater than those of any other citizen. So, did the US Supreme Court at one time. But it shifted its position gradually. In 1978 it ruled that “the concept of equal access must be accorded more flexibility in order to accommodate the practical distinctions between the press and the general public. When on assignment, a journalist does not tour a jail simply for his own edification. He is there to gather information to be passed on to others, and his mission is protected by the constitution for very specific reasons”.

In 1980 the principle was extended in yet more explicit terms to reporting of court proceedings. In olden times the public learnt of the proceedings by personal attendance or word of mouth from those who were present in court.

“People now acquire it chiefly through the print and electronic media. In a sense, this validates the media claim of functioning as surrogates for the public. While media representatives enjoy the same right of access as the public, they often are provided special seating and priority of entry so that they may report what people in attendance have seen and heard.”

Once the fundamental principle of the media as surrogates for the public is accepted, objections to special legislation, to protect members of the Fourth Estate and deter attacks on them, fall to the ground.

One such law was moved in the Karnataka Assembly in 1988 but the government fell before it could be enacted as Clause 4 of the bill read thus: “Whoever is a member of an unlawful assembly or voluntarily causes hurt, or wrongfully restrains or confines or commits criminal intimidation or threatens to commit any of the said offences with the intention of preventing any journalist or worker in a newspaper or journal from performing his duties or discharging his functions as such or preventing the publication, circulation or distribution of the said newspaper or journal shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to six years or with fine which may extend to Rs20,000 or with both.” The media must take the lead and promote suitable legislation.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.