Journalists’ difficult questions are integral to vibrant democracy: CJI Chandrachud

NEW DELHI — The vibrancy of democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from speaking truth to power and asking difficult questions to the establishment, quoting Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud Live Law reported.

Delivering the keynote address at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards organised by the Indian Express in collaboration with the Ramnath Goenka Foundation, Justice Chandrachud said: “The media is the fourth pillar in the conception of the State and thus, an integral component of our democracy. A functional and healthy democracy must encourage the development of journalism as an institution that can ask difficult questions to the establishment, or as it is commonly known, ‘speak truth to power’. The vibrancy of any democracy is compromised when the press is prevented from doing exactly this. The press must remain free if a country is to remain a democracy and we are no exception. The Supreme Court of India has emphasised on the rights of journalists in a number of judgments. It has held that India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal.”

Chief Justice Chandrachud highlighted the role of the free press as an institution that sparked debate and discussion and eventually paved the way for action.

All societies, he noted, inevitably became dormant, lethargic, and immune to the problems that plagued them. But journalism, in all its forms, was one of the key aspects that brought society out of its collective inertia.

“The media has played and continues to play an important role in shaping the course of current events and, by extension, the course of history itself,” Justice Chandrachud asserted.

To illustrate this point, he cited the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, harassment, and rape culture that began in Hollywood in 2017 but soon spread shockwaves across the world, leading to massive legal and policy transformations in public spaces.

He further cited the coverage of the ghastly gangrape and murder of Nirbhaya in the nation’s capital, saying, “Media reports led to widespread protests and later, important reforms in the criminal law. On a day-to-day basis, news stories prompt questions and discussions in the Parliament and in the legislative assemblies of the states.”

The relevance of the media was best highlighted during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the chief justice further said. It was a time, he added, when electronic, print, as well as social media, facilitated the state in disseminating relevant information to the general public. Not only this, but the media also played a key role in highlighting administrative loopholes and excesses.

He explained: “During the pandemic, many high courts and the Supreme Court relied on news reports in taking suo motu cognisance of instances of violations of people’s rights. I remember an article in Scroll titled ‘Why is Gujarat forcing hospitals to only accept Covid-19 patients coming through ‘108’ ambulances?’. The court had also taken cognisance on its own of the closure of the midday meal scheme, the problems and miseries of migrant labourers, and regarding the distribution of essential supplies and services during the pandemic. Another example is the Allahabad High Court taking suo motu cognisance of the Hathras case saying that the incidents had shocked their conscience. These were revelations on the media.”

The chief justice also spoke about the importance of community-based journalism in “illuminating the local truth”. Such journalism not only educated citizens but also raised little-known local issues and concerns and set the agenda for a debate on those issues at the level of policy formulation, the judge said.

Besides this, community journalism, together with the emergence of social media, he pointed out, has opened many avenues for the members of marginalised communities to be advocates for their communities, even as mainstream media struggled to accommodate such voices.

India has a great legacy of newspapers that have acted as catalysts of social and political change, Justice Chandrachud said.

Before independence, newspapers were run by social reformers and political activists in order to raise awareness and also as a means of outreach, he added, citing Dr BR Ambedkar’s Mook Nayak, Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, and Prabuddha Bharat.

These newspapers are now a monument to the times when courageous men and women acted against colonial rulers and fought fiercely for our independence. Many journalists in the country and across the world continue working in “difficult and unfriendly conditions”, Justice Chandrachud said, “But, they are relentless in the face of adversity and opposition which are the qualities that must not be lost.”

The chief justice also delivered an important message on the tolerance of differences. “As citizens,” he said, “We may not agree with the approach that a journalist has adopted or the conclusion that they reach.”

“I, too. find myself disagreeing with many journalists because after all, who amongst us agrees with all other people?” Justice Chandrachud added. However, this disagreement, he cautioned, must not distort into hatred and hatred must not be permitted to evolve into violence.

“No society can afford to accept hatred as a new normal,” he firmly said. — (Live Law)