Mixing news with views is a “dangerous cocktail”, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said on Wednesday as he cautioned journalists against being co-opted by an ideology or the government.

Delivering the keynote address at the Red Ink Awards for excellence in journalism, the chief justice stressed the need for unbiased, fact-based reportage, especially because of the vast reach of social media and its power to amplify fake news.

“Interpretation and opinions are colouring what should be factual reports,” he said. “Like the legal professional, a journalist also needs to have a strong moral fibre and moral compass. Your conscience is your guide in this profession...Regardless of the ideology you profess and the beliefs you hold dear, you must do your duty without being influenced by them.”

Ramana also said that the recent trend to “sermonise about verdicts and villainise judges” needs to be checked. “The media must have belief and trust in the judiciary,” he continued. “As a key stakeholder in democracy, the media has the duty to defend and protect the judiciary from motivated attacks by evil forces.”

A fearless media, Ramana said, was essential for the efficient working of democracy. “As someone who started his professional career as a journalist, I can understand your difficulties and struggles,” he added.

Crackdown on media

The chief justice’s remarks come at a time when the freedom of press in India has been facing challenges. There have been numerous cases where journalists and activists have been arrested by the police or raided by government agencies.

In one such instance, Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, was arrested in October last year while on his way to the site of an alleged gangrape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district.

The police alleged that Kappan was going to Hathras as part of a conspiracy to create law and order trouble and foment caste riots. The journalist was charged with sedition and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He has been in jail since then.

In another case, two journalists reporting on the communal violence in Tripura were arrested by the police in November.

The violence in Tripura was triggered after attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh since October 13. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had organised a protest rally in the state on October 26, which led to violence and attacks on mosques as well as shops and homes of Muslims in Tripura.

But, the journalists were accused of being part of a conspiracy to malign the government and spread communal disharmony. Later, they were granted bail.

On December 14, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that India is among the five most dangerous countries in terms of journalists killed across the world this year.

The Modi government has long been accused of attempting to stifle critical reporting. On Reporters Without Borders 2021 Press Freedom Index, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries. But, the Centre claimed on December 21 that the report was based on a small sample size and gave little or no importance to the “fundamentals of democracy”.