A petition filed in the Supreme Court on Wednesday sought a stay on the Patna High Court’s gag order restraining the media from reporting about the investigation into the alleged rapes of minor girls at a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. The plea, filed by a journalist, claims that the “erroneous” order is equivalent to imposing a “blanket ban” on media reporting in the case and is contrary to the freedom of speech and expression.

The petition claims that the Patna High Court did not have sufficient material to conclude that media reporting could interfere with the ongoing investigation. “The High Court committed an error in appreciating that the blanket ban had a chilling effect and is a direct assault on the rights of the public at large as also the rights of the fourth estate under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution,” it said.

“The High Court was not justified in ignoring that the effect of the impugned order was a gross infarction of the fundamental right of the people to know and freedom of the press which is guaranteed under the Constitution,” it said.

On August 23, the Patna High Court said it was concerned about details being leaked to the press and asked reporters not to publish them as it could hamper the investigation. The order was criticised by the Editors Guild of India, which was distressed to learn that the court had curbed media freedom instead of protecting it.

Thirty-four minor girls were raped at the state-run shelter, according to a report by the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

The “shocking incident” was exposed by the media’s proactive investigation and curbing it was an “arbitrary” decision, said the petition. It added that boys at a juvenile home in Bihar’s Arrah had complained to their parents about physical and sexual abuse after the Muzaffarpur incident came to light. Seven people were subsequently arrested.

The case

The alleged sexual exploitation of children in the shelter came to light after Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences submitted an audit report of 110 shelter homes in the state in April. The audit had been ordered by the state government, which filed a first information report on May 31. Initially, the police said 16 girls had been sexually assaulted. Later, the figure was revised to 34 on the basis of the medical report.

The Bihar Police registered a First Information Report against former social welfare minister of the state, Manju Verma, and her husband on August 19 after 50 cartridges were found in her in-law’s home during a search operation in connection with the case. Verma stepped down from her post on August 8 after allegations surfaced about her husband Chandeshwar Verma’s links to Brajesh Thakur, who used to run the shelter.