Access denied

Print edition : February 02, 2002

ON January 15, when the Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices G.B. Pattanaik and R.P. Sethi began the day's hearings on the contempt case against Arundhati Roy, one of the petitioners in the original contempt case against her, R.K. Virmani, asked in a loud voice in the court that he be allowed to intervene in the proceedings. Even after he was told not to interrupt the proceedings, he continued to pass comments about Arundhati Roy and her counsel, Shanthi Bhushan, and Additional Advocate-General Altaf Ahmed.

Virmani's behaviour was obnoxious; but more baffling was the court's inability to discipline him. In fact, at earlier hearings too he had interrupted the proceedings in a rude and offensive manner and got away with it (Frontline, November 23, 2001). Virmani is a Central government pleader.

Outside the Pattanaik-Sethi court on January 15, there were at least 10 journalists belonging to Indian and foreign news organisations, and a few friends of Arundhati Roy. They were denied entry into the court without any valid reason. The mediapersons did not have the full-time accreditation that is granted sparingly by the Supreme Court. Hence, the only recourse they had was to seek entry as visitors on the basis of a pass issued at the request of Arundhati Roy's advocates. Yet on January 15, officials at the Supreme Court's reception counter refused to honour the requests from Arundhati Roy's counsel, though the visitors' gallery in the court was virtually empty. When Arundhati Roy's advocates sought an explanation for the denial of access, the Registrar-General of the Supreme Court reportedly told them that he had "orders from above" not to allow anyone into the courtroom except Arundhati Roy and her husband, Pradip Krishen.

Although Shanthi Bhushan raised the issue in court, the Judges merely remarked, without elaboration, that there could be a security angle to the denial of access. However, Shanthi Bhushan argued that it was not the case since the normal precautions applied to visitors and litigants could have been applied to meet the security requirements. Moreover, visitors to other courts, who had request slips for passes duly signed by the advocates connected with the respective cases, were not denied entry.

Earlier, on August 2, when the court heard Arundhati Roy's first contempt case, she raised the issue of her husband not being allowed in by the security staff. The Bench, comprising Justices Pattanaik and Ruma Pal, was told by the Registry that according to the rules only litigants and their counsel were allowed inside courtrooms. The Registry pointed out that Arundhati Roy's husband was not allowed in as no notice had been issued to him. The Bench then made it clear that except when cases were heard in camera, proceedings were open to the public. Evidently, this principle was ignored by the Registry on January 15.

THE failure to correct this breach of the fundamental principle of open courtrooms and public justice raises several questions about the court's attitude to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to listen to contending arguments in a courtroom. In N.S. Mirajkar's case (1967), a nine-member Bench of the Supreme Court had held that courts must generally hear cases in the open and must permit free access to the courtroom. In a majority judgment (with a solitary dissent), the Bench said: "Public trial in open court is undoubtedly essential for the healthy objective and fair administration of justice. Trial held subject to the public scrutiny and gaze naturally acts as a check against judicial caprice or vagaries and serves as a powerful instrument for creating confidence of the public in the fairness, objectivity and impartiality of the administration of justice."

The Arundhati Roy case is expected to start a debate on the merits of restricting the right of the media to cover the Supreme Court's proceedings. There can be no dispute over the need to apply reasonable procedures to regulate the entry of mediapersons and visitors into the courtrooms. However, what defies logic is the Supreme Court's move to create a small and exclusive club of accredited mediapersons on the basis of archaic rules and deny the request of non-accredited mediapersons to cover specific court proceedings.

Until August 2001, the Supreme Court was accepting accreditation cards given by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) as the basis to issue visitors' passes to mediapersons covering particular court cases. The practice was abruptly stopped when the Court Registry rejected an application from some representatives of the electronic media for permission to cover certain court proceedings on a regular basis. Later, the Accreditation Committee of the Supreme Court, comprising three Judges, approved the Registry's decision. Evidently, no thought was given to the implications for the freedom of the press.

The accreditation rules were framed in 1989 in order to prevent the occasional distortion of observations made by judges in media reportage. Justice E.S. Venkataramaiah (who later became the Chief Justice) directed that accreditation rules be suitably framed to ensure that those who covered Supreme Court proceedings would be professionally equipped - by virtue of experience and education - to do so. The mandatory requirements imposed were a law degree and seven years' experience in reporting court proceedings, of which at least five years must be at the High Court level, in a daily newspaper, national news agency or media organisation such as All India Radio and Doordarshan. Moreover, of the five years of experience in High Court reporting, at least three and a half should be immediately prior to the application for accreditation. An applicant for press accreditation should also have regularly reported the proceedings of the Supreme Court for at least six months on the basis of temporary accreditation granted to him, and should continue to represent a daily newspaper with a circulation of not less than 40,000 as certified by the Registrar of Newspapers of India and the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The Accreditation Committee, which had earlier consisted of two senior legal correspondents, now functions without any representative from the media. The rules, as amended a few years ago, enable the Chief Justice, for special reasons, to refer to the committee any "deserving candidate" for consideration to accord accreditation by relaxing the rules and guidelines. The Registrar too can exercise his discretion to grant temporary reporting facilities to a mediaperson for a short duration or for a specific case on request from his or her Editor.

If the objective of framing accreditation rules was to ensure proper reporting, such relaxations will not serve the purpose. Such stringent rules for accreditation are unheard of in High Courts or in Parliament or State legislatures. Unsurprisingly, there are now fewer than 15 journalists accredited to the Supreme Court on a full-time basis. Informed observers wonder whether these accreditation rules have unwittingly become an instrument to limit the media's critical focus on the court's proceedings.