￼New Delhi, April 10: The Supreme Court on Wednesday said that the media was well within its rights to publish Rafale-related documents, thereby rejecting a government claim that it cannot and would face action for doing so.
“There is no provision in the Official Secrets Act and no such provision in any other statute… by which Parliament has vested any power in the executive arm of the government, either to restrain publication of documents marked as secret or…,” said Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, also speaking for Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul.
The CJI also said that there was also no bar from “placing such documents before a Court of Law which may have been called upon to adjudicate a legal issue concerning the parties”.
The top court said this in its unanimous judgment rejecting the preliminary objections raised by the Central government on the maintainability of the plea seeking review of its December 14, 2018 judgment and claiming privilege on three Rafale-related document and seeking their removal from the case record.
The publication of Rafale documents, CJI Gogoi, said would “seem to be in consonance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech” and noted that the government had not brought to its notice any law enacted by the Parliament specifically barring or prohibiting the publication of such documents “on any of the grounds mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution …”
The publication of the Rafale-related documents in the “The Hindu” newspaper, he said, reminds the court of its consistent views upholding the freedom of the press in a long line of decisions starting with the case of Romesh Thapar vs. State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs. The State of Delhi.
Agreeing with CJI Gogoi, Justice K.M. Joseph, in his separate but concurring judgment, said that the press in India has “greatly contributed to the strengthening of democracy” and it will have” a pivotal role to play for the continued existence of a vibrant democracy in the country”.
He said that it is “indisputable” that the press out of which the visual media, in particular, wields power, the reach of which appears to be limitless and “no segment of the population is impervious to its influence”.
Both the print and visual media, Justice Joseph said, “must realise that its consumers are entitled to demand that the stream of information that flows from it, must remain unpolluted by considerations other than the truth”.
Elaborating on the elements of free press, he said: “A free person must be fearless. Fear can be of losing all or any of the things that is held dear by the journalist. A free man cannot be biased. Bias comes in many forms. Bias if it is established as per the principles which are applicable is sufficient to vitiate the decisions of public authorities.”
The press, including the visual media, “cannot be biased and yet be free” and transmitting biased information “betrays the absence of true freedom”, he added.
It is, Justice Joseph said, “a wholly unjustifiable onslaught on the vital right of the people to truthful information under Article 19(1)(a) which, in turn, is the bedrock of many other rights of the citizens also.”
The right of the press in India is no higher than the right of the citizens under Article 19(1)(a) and both rights can be traced to the same provision of the Constitution.
Justice Joseph also cautioned that the free press without a “deep sense of responsibility” could weaken democracy.
“Controlling business interests and political allegiances appear to erode the duty of dispassionate and impartial purveying of information,” he said, citing the “disturbing trend of bias in some section of media”.