Fetters on expression

Print edition : February 25, 2005

IT was Black Thursday for the feature film Black Friday. A day before the movie was to be released, on January 28, the special Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court temporarily stopped its screening.

Based on the book by Mid-Day journalist Hussain Zaidi, the movie tells the story of the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993. Mushtaq Tarani, an accused in the conspiracy case, filed a petition saying that the film should not be made public until the Special Court designated to hear the case passes its verdict. The trial proceedings ended in mid-2003 and the judgment could take several months.

Tarani's initial objection was to the film's posters and publicity, which state that it is the `true story' of the Mumbai blasts. Although the producers of the film, Mid-Day Multimedia, agreed to remove that description, Tarani insisted that the film should not be screened because it amounts to contempt of court and defames him and the other accused. Tarani is charged with planting two bombs on March 12, 1993 - one at a five star hotel in the western suburbs and another in a scooter (which did not explode), in south Mumbai.

Interestingly, Tarani has not called for any action against Zaidi's book published by Penguin in 2002. The book cover also claims that it is the `true story' of the blast. Zaidi says that his book has just compiled information available in the public domain - newspaper reports, police charge-sheets and court documents. "Why is this film being singled out when it contains information that has been reported widely?" he asks.

"A book is not as widely read as a film, which will reach a large audience. Besides, my client, Tarani, has been in jail for 12 years and was not aware of the book until now," says Shahid Azmi, Tarani's lawyer. His petition says that releasing the film would "lower the prestige of the court" because Zaidi has thanked the trial judge Pramod Kode in the acknowledgement section of his book, which "shows that the trial judge had pre-decided the case and his mind was not open and unbiased...this will undermine the faith of the people in the judicial system".

However, the film has no such acknowledgment. Zaidi says: "All I did was to thank Justice Kode for his encouragement. That is a relative term, it does not mean that he has provided me with any information." The film's release is not going to influence the judge or his verdict, says Mid-Day's lawyer, Mihir Desai. "Judges are not susceptible to media pressure," he says.

If the film is screened, it will also violate the fundamental rights of the accused, who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, says Tarani's petition.

But producers have included a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, which states: "The film you are about to see is based on the book titled Black Friday published in 2002. The events depicted in this film are true to the book and are constructed from the case for the prosecution. In the adaptation to film, certain creative license has been taken. Nothing in the narration should be construed to be an opinion on the innocence or the guilt of the person depicted."

Those objecting to the film have not even seen it before declaring that it is defamatory, says Desai. "The laws regarding defamation say that a person has a right to prosecute for either civil or criminal defamation, but he/she cannot ask for restraining orders." He points out that in 1994, a petitioner had asked the Mumbai High Court to restrain Indian Express from publishing articles about him after it had carried a report alleging that he was an Inter-Services Intelligence agent and had smuggled RDX into Mumbai, but the court refused to grant an injunction.

In a similar case, Zee TV had made a telefilm on the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, which was to be telecast days before the court was scheduled to pass its judgment in December 2002. One of the accused had objected to the telecast, but the Supreme Court allowed it saying that it would not prejudice the trial court verdict.

"If such bans are allowed, it can give rise to all kinds of censorship," says Desai. "By the same logic, documentaries and news reports on cases like the Gujarat communal violence, Babri Masjid demolition, corruption cases, or any other court matters would not be allowed."

Ironically, the petition may prove to be counterproductive. The controversy it has generated may draw a larger audience to the theatres.

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