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New Delhi: The Delhi high court on Thursday restrained television channels, newspapers and news websites from reporting allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Swatanter Kumar, a former Supreme Court judge and chairperson of the National Green Tribunal, a day after he moved the court seeking an order to this effect. Editors and legal experts said the case once again highlights the need for balance in such coverage.

The restraining order will be operative till 24 February, the date of the next hearing of Kumar’s case.

Kumar has also sought damages worth a combined 5 crore from two English news channels, CNN-IBN and Times Now, English daily The Indian Express and one of its reporters, and the intern who has levelled the allegations for defaming him.

B. Sai Kumar, the chief executive officer of Network 18, the parent of CNN-IBN, declined comment, as did Sunil Lulla, the head of Times News Network, which runs Times Now. The Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta and the paper’s legal officer declined comment, too.

The court ordered the deletion of the alleged defamatory parts of the news items and photographs of Kumar posted online within 24 hours. Justice Manmohan Singh, in his interim order, also asked the media not to carry the photographs of Kumar in future news reports.

“The defendants No. 1 to 5 (media houses, The Indian Express reporter and the law intern) are further restrained from telecasting and printing the photograph of the plaintiff (Justice Kumar)," the judge said while pronouncing the order in a packed courtroom.

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the former judge, said Kumar has an “illustrious career spanning 43 years in the legal field as a lawyer and as a high court and the Supreme Court judge and moreover, his fundamental right of good name and reputation cannot be allowed to be blackened by the media".

On 11 January, Kumar sent a legal notice to the channels, the newspaper, and the intern, demanding an apology from them within 24 hours for bringing into the public domain “incredulous and false" allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by the law intern.

In the legal notice, he had said that in the event the three media organizations did not comply with the order, he would commence “appropriate proceedings" against them.

“The problem with reporting on allegations of misconduct is that if the allegations prove to be wrong, we don’t have a redressal mechanism to clear a person’s name," said A.S. Paneerselvan, the readers’ editor at The Hindu, published by Kasturi and Sons Ltd.

Still, Paneerselvan added that given the fact that most media outlets now have a substantial online presence, it is very difficult to completely remove stories as other websites quickly pick them up.

“The explosion of media and the kind of Web presence that some publications have means that even if major newspapers remove it from their websites, it is not easy to remove it from Internet," he said.

Television journalists, too, sounded a note of caution on the extent to which allegations should be made public. “There needs to be a consensus that needs to be drawn about the nature of reporting," said Ravish Kumar, executive editor of NDTV India.

“If the identity of the accuser is not being made public, then by the same logic, the identity of the accused should also be not made public," Kumar said. Legal experts pointed to the fact that while Justice Kumar had been a judge of the Supreme Court, the impact which excessive media attention would have on a court case extends to private citizens as well.

“Ultimately, if an individual feels that his/her right to a free and fair trial is being hampered by excessive media coverage on the issue, they can move court to seek relief in accordance with the principles laid down in the 2012 media guidelines case," said Madhavi Divan, a Supreme Court advocate.

In September 2012, the Supreme Court said that if publishing news related to a trial would “create a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice or to the fairness of trial", the court could grant a postponement order, temporarily preventing the media from reporting on it.

Even in the past, the court had taken cognizance of the effects of mass media coverage and its effects on some cases. In 2010, during a case involving a double murder, in which the victims were a 14-year-old girl and a domestic help, the apex court had expressed the need to have in place certain norms that would govern media coverage of criminal cases. These rules, according to the court, would be sensitive to the right of privacy as well as the reputation of those involved.

Paneerselvan said such episodes highlighted the dilemma inherent in covering such cases—something that needs to be thought through by media persons. The allegations of going soft on the accused or of having a trial by media are easy to level against the media.

“The media will be damned if they do cover such episodes and damned if they don’t," he said.

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