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Home / Politics / Policy /  Niira Radia case: Plea to restrain media from publishing leaked documents

New Delhi: In a case that could redefine the arena of defamation law, media regulation and privacy in India, Ratan Tata has demanded that the media be made to exercise more responsibility when reporting leaked documents and those placed before the courts.

“The media refuses to follow discipline and considers itself to be above the law. Information needs to be reviewed before being put in public domain," the former Tata group chairman’s counsel Harish Salve argued in the Supreme Court on Friday.

The court was hearing a case filed by Tata against the leakage of audio tapes containing tapped conversation that corporate lobbyist Niira Radia had with politicians, businessmen, journalists and bureaucrats. Tata argues that the contents of the tapes, which include conversations he had with Radia, are private in nature and, therefore, must be removed from public circulation.

Salve has also argued that documents submitted to the court cannot be deemed to be in the public domain and cannot be published by the media. In effect, any petition, affidavit or any evidence submitted in the court cannot be reproduced, according to him.

He also said frivolous public interest litigations (PIL) that make grave allegations are played up by the media but end up being dismissed eventually, causing irreparable defamation.

Disagreeing with Salve, advocate Apar Gupta, an expert in media and communications, said, “Given that larger interests are at stake in PILs, it is necessary that it be extensively published and debated. This will also ensure that others affected by the same issue approach the court.

“Not publishing it will mean reliance on conjecture and inaccurate reporting. The public will be denied correct information about relevant issues. Moreover, legal remedy for defamation is already prescribed by law. Effective and speedy judicial process will combat defamation as well as deter those who file frivolous PILs."

Arguing that in case of documents leaked to the media by “sources", the media has an added responsibility to verify the contents, Salve said media organizations must be ordered to pay compensation where they fail to do their “homework".

As an alternative, he suggested that the Right to Information Act be utilized by the media to access documents and that the Chief Information Commissioner can decide on such requests, depending on the nature of documents.

Given that a legal structure is already in place, media must be reined in by it, he argued.

Accusing the media of blatant disregard for law and considering itself “above the law", Salve asked for penalties to be imposed on erring media houses. Salve also submitted that the court hearing the Radia case had ordered an in camera trial—keeping out the public and media—on 29 August as sensitive issues were involved.

But Gupta responded, “India has followed the healthy practices of open trials and open courts and that access cannot be eliminated. However, we can definitely incorporate better practices. The United States and United Kingdom are perhaps the best examples—not only are the transcriptions of oral arguments made available to the public, but complete proceedings, including the interaction of lawyers and judges, are made available in video format. We should also remember that Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha proceedings are telecast. Judiciary cannot be compelled to make a retrograde move."

Salve also emphasised that state surveillance needs to be better monitored and that the purpose of ordering such surveillance must be strictly reviewed by an independent committee. Tata’s telecom companies alone annually receive thousands of surveillance requests by the government, Salve said, adding the reasons for such orders need to be scrutinised.

The case has also seen the leakage of a report prepared by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to The Indian Express, even before it could be perused by the court.

Submitted in a sealed cover to the bench, the report was accessed only by the CBI and the court. Taking strong exception to this, Salve argued that it amounted to contempt of court and those guilty must be brought to book.

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