Even as arguments continue in the Supreme Court of India on the apex court’s proposal to frame guidelines for the media on reporting judicial proceedings, particularly in criminal cases, a panel discussion in Bangalore this week, seeking to make sense of the pandemonium that prevailed on the premises of the City Civil Court on 2 March 2012, revealed some aspects of the role of the local media that have so far received inadequate attention.
The three main speakers, representing the police, the bar and the media, naturally perceived and presented the crisis from their particular vantage points. However, as individuals, they appeared to agree that the shocking and shameful events of “Black Friday” were unacceptable, that at least some of their colleagues in each field were guilty of mismanaging and/or aggravating the situation, and that such flagrant lawlessness did no credit to their respective professions – each bearing special responsibility in a democratic society for upholding the law and ensuring justice.
A one-man Judicial Commission of Inquiry appointed to probe the violence that turned the court complex into a veritable battleground is expected to submit its report within three months. Meanwhile, the role played by a sizeable section of lawyers and the police in the mayhem has been widely reported and commented upon in the media.
The Bangalore editions of most newspapers on 3 March devoted much of their front and city pages to the ferocious violence that broke out in and around the court the previous day, leaving many journalists, policemen and lawyers – not to mention the institutions they represent – battered and bruised.
The banner headlines made it clear who the media saw as the main culprits: “Violent Men in Black” (Deccan Chronicle), “Black coats turn outlaws, again” (Deccan Herald), “Advocates of Stone Age” (DNA),“Men in Black Run Riot” (The New Indian Express), and “Lawlessness” (The Times of India).
The Hindu was characteristically more restrained, taking up only a quarter of page 1 for its lead story on the conflict, even though its headline (in normal type) also focused on the legal community: “Lawyers run riot in Bangalore.” Interestingly, Bangalore Mirror took a totally different tack with its front page headline: “Janardhana Reddy was the only man smiling on Friday.”
The Hindu and Bangalore Mirror were also the only papers to promptly record the questionable role of sections of the media, as well as some journalists, in the events of the day.
The Hindu reported eyewitness accounts of violent attacks by journalists “or those posing as journalists” on advocates emerging from the courts in the afternoon, including many who had nothing to do with the assault on media personnel in the morning. The front page report by senior correspondent Sudipto Mondal pointed out that, just when “matters began to settle,” a section of journalists joined some policemen “in attacking anybody wearing a white shirt and black trousers” and setting fire to “several vehicles that bore the sign ‘Advocate." Fellow journalists who tried to stop rogue colleagues running amok were also reportedly beaten up.
A page 2 report in The Hindu, headlined “Channels go on overdrive,” mentioned the black montages, black bands and two-minute blackout used by television news channels to protest against the targeting of journalists by lawyers. Footage of journalists being roughed up was, of course, looped throughout the day and into the night. The report also quoted a senior lawyer who questioned the media’s failure to report on the violence perpetrated on lawyers during the latter half of the disastrous day.
The Bangalore Mirror cover story pinned part of the blame for precipitating further conflict on the media, particularly local TV channels, which reportedly flashed “breaking news” of a policeman succumbing to injuries without cross-checking the veracity of what subsequently proved to be a bogus rumour. According to the paper, “The falsehood escalated the situation…” Bangalore Mirror also reported that “the media posse, too, went on the rampage in the afternoon, breaking at least 15 cars of lawyers” and “some fringe channels were seen working in tandem with the police to intimidate and even thrash advocates, in full view of mainstream journalists.”
These observations were confirmed during the panel discussion at the Bangalore International Centre this week, chaired and moderated by former Supreme Court justice R.V. Raveendran.
Gopal Hosur, Inspector-General of Police – Intelligence, referred to the unfortunate outcome of the irresponsible rumour-mongering indulged in by some local news channels. Aditya Sondhi, a practising lawyer (whose young colleagues were eye-witnesses to the events at the City Civil Court), highlighted the failure of the media, with some exceptions, to tell the full story and pay due attention to the indiscriminate violence perpetrated on lawyers, including many who were not involved in the morning’s fracas. Sudipto Mondal ofThe Hindu, who had reported from the frontlines, provided a detailed account of the sequence of events that day, including the disturbing phenomenon of some journalists joining the fray (he himself was attacked by some of them for trying to save an elderly man from their blows).
Editors and media organisations – in Karnataka and elsewhere – were quick to condemn the indefensible, brutal attack by lawyers on media persons that morning. Heads of media houses addressed a gathering in Bangalore calling for a secure environment that would allow journalists to discharge their responsibilities. Journalists across the state, representing both print and broadcast media, staged demonstrations demanding stern action against lawyers who had indulged in violence. At least two English dailies (Deccan Herald and DNA) carried strong editorials on the issue the very next day. DNA’s front page edit, headlined, “Rocks don’t scare us,” declared “they might beat us, but they can never break us.”
Justice Markandey Katju, Chairperson of the Press Council of India, immediately condemned the attack on media persons in Bangalore, reportedly saying that the lawyers responsible for taking law into their own hands and physically attacking journalists deserved severe punishment. Interestingly, a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court, comprising Chief Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice B.V. Nagarathna, hearing a batch of public interest litigation petitions related to the incident, has reportedly sought a reply from the PCI chairman on his statement. According to media reports, Justice Sen orally raised several questions about Justice Katju’s remarks, observing that the latter should have spoken to him before issuing a statement apportioning blame.
Significantly, as Mr. Hosur pointed out during the panel discussion, while the report of an in-house inquiry into police action and inaction was submitted to the Home Secretary in less than three weeks, organisations representing the legal and media professions, whose mandate is to uphold and strengthen professional standards and ethics, do not seem to have taken any such institutional initiative.
The entire episode points to the debasement of all three professions, which are supposed to play a vital role in society, thanks to the attitudes and behaviour of some members of each (both individuals and organisations), and the apparent inability or unwillingness of professional bodies to develop effective mechanisms to actively encourage ethical conduct and strongly discourage unprincipled (not to mention unlawful) practices.
The conduct of sections of the media and some media employees during Bangalore’s recent “Black Friday” certainly raises several questions that call for serious attention within the profession. Even assuming that the media persons who ran riot that day were rare black sheep, what is the responsibility of the media houses employing them, at least in terms of sending out a message that such behaviour will not be tolerated in the future? Can the failure to report the violence experienced by lawyers be explained away by saying, as some have, that “the media, caught up in protesting the attack on its own members, did not see or report the police action against the lawyers?” And what about the reporting of unconfirmed rumour as “breaking news?”
Beyond such specific questions are many larger ones that have been around for some time but continue to yield more doubts and dilemmas than answers and action, such as:
· What are the defining characteristics of a news channel (if any)?
· What are “fringe channels” – referred to as such by Bangalore Mirror – and what (if any) principles of journalism do they endorse and espouse?
· What prior and/or in-house training do employees of such channels receive (if any) and what is included in such training?
· Where are we headed with the TRP-driven rush for “breaking news,” whether true or false?
· What are the roles and duties of self-regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association in such situations?
· What can professional associations do to prevent the further deterioration of journalistic standards and ethics and promote accuracy, fairness and balance in the news media?
It is significant – and alarming – in this context to learn that the controversial Advocates’ Association of Bangalore (which spearheaded the 18-day boycott of courts in March and decided that lawyers would not represent media houses in any litigation as punishment “for showing advocates in poor light”) is discussing the possibility of launching its own TV channel, according to media reports quoting KN Subba Reddy, President of the association.