So­cial me­dia’s pow­der keg re­strains judges from ask­ing search­ing ques­tions

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times Nation - Dhanan­jay.Ma­ha­p­a­tra @times­group.com

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.”

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