Late last Thursday evening, 16th May 2019, our Supreme Court corre-spondent handed me a notification from the apex court signed by its reg-istrar, Md Golam Rabbani, stating:
“Recently we have been noticing that some TV channels and some newspapers have been publishing news and scrolls about ongoing cases which is totally undesirable.
Under these circumstances we, on being instructed, are requesting all concerned to desist from publishing news and scrolls about ongoing cases in courts.” (translation ours)
Needless to mention our newsroom was thunderstruck by this notice.
A directive from the Supreme Court carries the full weight of the law. A “request” from the same institution carries a similar moral obligation on our part to respect it. And we want to voluntarily do so, as a mark of our sincere respect for courts in general and the highest judicial body in particular.
However, I am constrained to question as to whether our highest court had the opportunity to examine the meaning and especially the implica-tions of this “request” and what it does to the people’s fundamental Right to Know, to freedom of expression, to freedom of the press and the vital
notion in any democracy as to the need for an informed public for a judicious function of democracy itself.
Given the scholarship, judicial acumen and years of experience of our Supreme Court, we would like to believe that this “request” is NOT the product of our learned judiciary but more the product of the judicial bureaucracy, who like all bureaucracies everywhere else, wants to control freedom rather than see it flourish.
We say so because our judges have always been pro-freedom, pro-democracy and champions of freedom of speech and of the press.
The reason we say that this “request” couldn’t have come from our Supreme Court judges is that the implication of the “request” is nothing short of death for court reporting. It will lead to shrouding of the judicial process and whatever goes on in the courts into the darkness of night forever depriving it of the “light” of public scrutiny.
One very serious distinction needs to be made at this point. The media never passes opinions or comments about ongoing cases. If it does, then that is wrong, and the offending news outlet should be appropriately reprimanded, warned and as a last resort punished-in that order.
But to “request” that we should not cover court proceedings or report on ongoing cases is asking us to shut our ears, close our eyes, seal our mouth about everything that goes on in our courts. How can that be part of democracy?
Let us look back on some historical cases that media covered and how it helped raise public awareness about justice. One of the landmark cases of our time, and one that we followed with the keenest of interest during our early university days, was the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case against Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1968. Every detail of the trial was covered by the media, which primarily consisted of the press at that time. The radio and the TV being government-owned toed the official line. No details were spared, including the arguments of both the prosecution and the defendant, and the accounts of the witnesses who took the stand. As the case proceeded, its fraudulent nature became more and more exposed and finally General Ayub’s regime had to withdraw the case under public pressure. Without media coverage the outcome of that historic case might have been completely reverse. Can anybody deny that the cause of justice was served by a free media reporting factually and objectively on the case? Never was a word uttered about the proceedings not being allowed a play in the media. No “request” was ever heard from the judiciary about not covering the “on-going case”.
Closer to the present, the eagerly awaited and much hoped for trial of the war criminals, were covered by every media - both print and electronic - on a daily basis over months and years that the trial lasted. Every day because of the media coverage people came to know how our freedom-loving people suffered in the hands of these war criminals who committed such heinous crimes against us and against humanity.
Would the people of Bangladesh have ever gotten the details of their atrocities if the media hadn’t covered the trial?
Take the recent case of Limon and how he was brutalised and shot in the leg by law enforcers who thought they were above the law. However belated and whatever justice that Limon received was due obviously to the role of the judges greatly assisted by the media’s coverage of the case.
The case of Jaha Alam, who was falsely jailed for two years due to mis-taken identity and the reluctance of the relevant authorities to accept their fault, received full public sympathy because the case and its trial was covered by the media. The public repulsion for the injustice done to him strengthened his claim for compensation.
The trial of Bangabandhu’s killers is another case in point.
Our highly respected Chief Justice told the law reporters on 9th April 2019, “Write what you see but you should remain careful so that the dig-nity and the image of the judiciary is upheld.” (It may not be out of place to let our readers know that our Hon’ble Chief Justice acted as a court reporter of a renowned national daily during his days as an advocate).
As to upholding the “dignity and image” of the courts, we in the media couldn’t agree more with the Chief Justice. But for the stray and rare in-stances in some not so mainstream media, none of us would ever do anything that would remotely harm the dignity of the judiciary. For we know, through our own experience, that without a highly respected and independent judiciary that protects and restores our rights, media free-dom and people’s rights in general would all be in serious jeopardy. It is the judiciary that protects us from all forms of abuse of power. It is to them that we turn for protection when our constitutional rights are violated. So, we in the media, are with the Chief Justice in doing everything possible to protect and promote the dignity of the courts.
However, an important question that needs to be asked is what truly enhances the image and dignity of the judiciary – writing on its performance or keeping it above public scrutiny? This is an old question that has both its supporters and detractors. It is not our wish to enter into that argument here except to simply ask, what happens when the judiciary itself does things that are detrimental to its own image and dignity? Is it being suggested that we shouldn’t report on it at all? Suppose we agree to censor ourselves, does it ensure that the judiciary’s image and dignity is preserved? Unfortunately, it risks doing exactly the opposite. Without exposure of “misconduct” it is likely that no corrective measure will be taken, which in time will grow to engulf the whole judiciary. Soon enough the fault of a few, or even one, will grow to destroy public confidence in the whole system – public confidence being the very foundation on which this grand edifice stands.
In the very rare instance of a particular case dealing with the judiciary itself whose extensive coverage may lead to tarnishing of the image of the judiciary, request may be made to the media to exert restraint in covering it.
But a blanket “request” not to cover any ongoing case is not acceptable to the press nor is it desirable for the judiciary itself.
There are judges in every country of the world, and everywhere the judiciary is being given a special status and respect, and correctly so. How-ever nowhere, and we repeat nowhere, is the press prevented from covering the day-to-day trial proceedings of the courts.
We repeat, the media should not pass judgment or comment on the proceedings of the court. But it must report on it, factually and completely. And not being allowed to do so brings into question the very foundation of justice which states all are equal in the eyes of the law.
Whatever may have been the motivation behind the “request”, it was a misconceived one, and it is our firm belief that our highest judiciary will see the implication of what has been “requested” and as such recall it before it does serious damage to our judiciary and to the public confidence in it.
We are heartened by the law minister’s clarification of the issue. However, it would be better for all concerned if the same comes from the Supreme Court as the notice came from its registrar.
We request the personal intervention of the Hon’ble Chief Justice in this matter.