It was 11 at the District Sessions Court in Cochin on a Monday morning. The court was all set to hear a high-profile terror case in which the key accused, an alleged ISIS recruiter, was being presented before it.
The strong police presence at the gate was not unusual, given the security risk that the accused person presented. But as it turns out, the men in uniform were actually there to prevent the media from entering the court premises.
The Lawyers’ Association in Cochin had informed the district judge that if media people entered the court premises, they would physically stop them. The judge, fearing violence inside the court, passed on the information to the district police chief, who advised the media to stay away.
The restrictions are the fallout of scuffles last week between lawyers and journalists at the Kerala High Court. As a consequence, a section of the lawyers have forced the Kerala police to ban media persons, both print and electronic, from entering the court premises across the state.
Even a public outcry describing the blockade as a clear violation of the Constitutional provisions guaranteeing free expression has had little effect. Senior journalists say the restrictions are a direct threat to the Open Court System, which gives every Indian the right to enter the court.
"Unless it ceases to be an open court, they cannot banish us," said KJ Jacob, the Executive Editor of the Deccan Chronicle. "It’s up to the courts to decide whether they need to be an open one or not. But they cannot tell us how to report and what to report. It will be disastrous for all of us if this tension continues.’’
How it all began
The tension began last fortnight, shortly after a government pleader Dhanesh Mathew Manjooran was caught red-handed molesting a 43-year-old woman in Cochin by local residents on July 14. A case was registered against him.
As the news spread, lawyers of the Kerala High Court made an attempt to protect Manjooran by filing a compromise petition signed by the victim, claiming it was a case of mistaken identity. But the plan failed as the victim later retracted her words. She made a statement to a magistrate in Cochin that she had been coerced by Manjooran’s men to claim that she could not identify him.
The Deccan Chronicle covered the incident in detail, highlighting the actions of the lawyers. The next day, the paper's High Court reporter Rohit Raj was attacked inside the court premises and pushed down the stairs by a group of agitated lawyers. The media room in the court was locked up and media persons, including a physically challenged reporter, were heckled and thrown out of the room.
To protest this, journalists in Cochin under the banner of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists organised a march to the gates of the High Court on July 20. But the march turned violent after lawyers abused the reporters. In the ensuing scuffle, both journalists and lawyers were injured.
The Kerala High Court Advocates’ Association reacted by calling for a statewide boycott of courts. In the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, violence broke out again on July 21 as a section of lawyers attacked media persons.
Posters calling the media "the fourth gender" were put up outside the media room in Thiruvananthapuram District Court and when camera and lensmen rushed in to record these, they were attacked.
From the streets, the fight has moved to social media and the battle is acrimonious. Advocate Sangeetha Laxmana says the media has to take a share of the blame on why most of the senior lawyers and jurists have been silent on the issue even though they know that restricting the media from entering courts is illegal.
“There is huge section among the lawyers who feel that most times the media has done injustice to court reporting," said Laxmana. "Judgments are out even before the lawyer informs his client. Many reports are based on mere speculation. So although many senior lawyers don’t support this agitation by their colleagues, most of them do not want to interfere. Rather they prefer to remain silent on this and hope the media is taught a lesson. But that’s a dangerous situation.’’
Chief minister's silence
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been avoiding questions on the subject. “I will speak on it later,” he said. Although the chief minister conducted a peace talk at Cochin two days after the High Court episode, it had little effect.
When reporters questioned him about steps the government would take to ensure safety of reporters who go to courts, Vijayan said, “Media persons should avoid such situations where they get into a brawl with the lawyers. You should not go and create a problem and then get hit by the lawyers.”
Activists are alleging that by remaining mute, the government is playing the role of a silent conspirator. “Why is government failing to take stand in this issue?’’ said CR Neelakandan, a political activist. "By remaining silent the state is certainly taking the role of a conspirator here. We are living in times when RTI rules. So people have a right to know. A transparent government has to ensure that at all costs."
Meanwhile, the Congress and the BJP seem to be projecting a united face of opposition and called for the intervention of the governor to resolve the stalemate. The Lawyers’ Associations were unavailable to comment on the issue when contacted.