Social media’s powder keg restrains judges from asking searching questions
Social media is a no-holds barred medium. To be a controversial or popular figure on social media, the person needs to read only Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution — “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech” — and stream out his/her views on everything under the sun.
It is no disqualification for tweet-activists if they lack basic knowledge of an incident or subject before posting comments. And there are troll armies, who get fixated with a certain ideology and target those with contrasting views through non-stop jabbering. Both tweet-activists and troll armies are always up to their shenanigans.
Recently, a famed public interest lawyer and activist was dismayed by the absence of a popular anchor on Mirror Now channel. He did not bother to ascertain the facts before pulling the tweet trigger, “One of our finest TV journalists (the name) has resigned (made to) from Mirror Now. She raised the biggest issues and spoke truth to power. Obviously it annoyed the establishment, who then put pressure on the management to replace her. Very unfortunate.”
This gentleman believed the rumour mills and resorted to insinuations just because an anchor was off air for some days! ‘Made to resign’, ‘spoke truth to power’ to ‘obviously annoy establishment’, ‘establishment putting pressure on management’ and ‘management succumbing to such pressure from establishment’ — were products of his fertile imagination. He concluded it was ‘very unfortunate’.
Indeed, it was unfortunate that such a renowned person spoke without cross-checking facts. But he appears to be a little more conscientious than most Twitter activists. Weeks later, he attempted to make amends by tweeting, “I find that (the woman) is still anchoring the Mirror Now programme. Seems I had misunderstood the reasons for her resigning as executive editor of Mirror Now. I, therefore, withdraw the tweet with apologies to the management.” An irresponsible act was washed down with a half remorse — “seems I had misunderstood”.
Repeating falsehood, circulating accusations and commenting without context has become the norm for activists and trolls on social media. And this is a prime reason why Supreme Court judges are getting increasingly wary of asking questions to counsel in sensitive matters. They apprehend their questions could get ill-contextualised by the ‘fastest finger first’ norm on social media and create controversy.
Restrictions on free speech and expression, pertaining to “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of an offence”, seldom apply to and respect bestowed upon the seat she/he occupies is for dispensation of justice without fear or favour. Social media platforms, where incidents get reported within seconds, is a good antigen for some motormouth judges, who think they lord over lawyers and litigants.
Recently, a senior advocate recounted his unpleasant experience before an Uttarakhand HC judge. After hearing counsel for the CBI and the accused person, the judge passed an order in a criminal case. Hours later, the CBI sought modification of the order. The judge sought presence of the other side’s counsel.
On spotting a junior, who had assisted the senior advocate appearing for the accused, the judge told him to ensure the presence of the senior with a warning that the court was not powerless to register an FIR against any “delinquent counsel, be it a senior or junior”. Perturbed, the senior advocate rushed to the court and inquired from the judge whether he had threatened to lodge an FIR.
The judge denied it. But the next moment, he made some insinuating comments — “bade aaye English mein argue karne wale” — to deride the counsel who practised in the SC and was not fluent enough to retort back in Hindi.
If a counsel from the southern part of the country, because of his mettle and experience, is hired by someone in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand or other Hindi-speaking states, should he need to take elementary lessons in Hindi before taking up cases in HCs of these states? Social media would have erupted over this incident had it happened in Delhi or other metros.
The rules that apply to social media activists and trolls must also apply to judges. Judges must keep in mind what Lord Atkin said in Andre Paul vs Attorney-General of Trinidad [AIR 1936 PC 141], “Justice is not a cloistered virtue; she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken, comments of ordinary men.”