There cannot be a 'blanket ban' on media reporting on cases of rape and sexual abuse but such incidents should not be sensationalised, the Supreme Court said on Thursday.
It made the observations after vacating a Patna high court order restraining the media from reporting on the probe into the Muzaffarpur shelter home case where several women were allegedly raped and sexually abused over a period of time.
Asking both the print and the electronic media not to 'sensationalise' incidents of sexual assaults and abuse and report such cases responsibly so as not to reveal the identity of the victim, a bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta issued notices to the Press Council of India, Editors Guild of India, News Broadcasting Standards Authority and News Broadcasters Association seeking their assistance in the matter.
The bench said it would need the help of these bodies on the issue of media reporting in such cases as it related to the criminal justice system and press freedom.
"In the meanwhile, the blanket order passed by the Patna high court on August 23 with regard to media reporting (in Muzaffarpur shelter home case) is vacated," it said.
The bench also restrained the electronic media from telecasting or showing the victims of sexual abuse and violence, even in a morphed or blurred form, saying this would be in the interest of such victims.
"We request the media not to interview the victims. The news of the event may of course be disseminated," the bench said, adding 'we also request the electronic and print media not to sensationalise such events'.
Senior advocate Shekhar Naphade, appearing for a scribe who has challenged the Patna high court order, argued that there were guidelines, including on journalistic ethics, and statutory provisions, but these were being violated as the media was conducting 'parallel investigations' and trial.
"It appears that there is no mechanism of enforcement and implementation of statutory provisions and guidelines," the bench observed, adding that 'in the absence of any mechanism, it is possible that there could be some person, who is not involved in a case, be mistakenly made an accused by the media'.
Naphade said 'media trial' of cases cannot be allowed and they should be asked to do factual reporting.
The bench observed that 'there cannot be a blanket ban on media reporting. One of the aspects is how do you prevent disclosure of identity (of victims of sexual assaults). The second aspect is conclusions are drawn by the media'.
"They (media) announce a fellow guilty," it said, adding 'there cannot be media trials'.
The bench then asked Naphade 'where to draw the line and how to check it?'
The senior counsel said the media cannot pronounce a person guilty and conduct parallel investigation.
"It is the duty of media to report facts. Somewhere, a line has to be drawn. We have to look into it."
Referring to section 228-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deals with disclosure of identity of such victims, Naphade said the media was taking a 'circuitous route', like interviewing the father of the victim, to do this.
He said that under section 228-A, revealing the identity is a cognisable offence and the police is bound to take action in such cases.
"If they (media) do not obey this, it amounts to contempt and also abetment of offence. Police has to be alerted," he said.
However, the bench observed, "Tell us about this. We will prepare some guidelines. We may need the assistance of Press Council of India also."
Naphade referred to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act and said disclosure of a victim's identity is a 'non-cognisable' offence and the apex court could direct the police chiefs of all the states to nominate an officer who could file complaints in this regard before a magistrate.
The bench asked its registry to issue notices to the Press Council of India, Editors' Guild of India, News Broadcasting Standards Authority and News Broadcasters Association to assist the court and posted the matter for hearing after two weeks.
At the fag end of hearing, lawyer Aparna Bhat, assisting the court as an amicus curiae in the matter, referred to an earlier report of the Law Commission and said the same issue was dealt with in it.
Naphade also referred to the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006 and said that it has lapsed.
He said the apex court can pass direction under Article 142 of the Constitution, which deals with enforcement of decrees and orders of the Supreme Court, as was done at the time of Visakha guidelines which dealt with the issue of sexual harassment of women at workplace.
"We cannot become Parliament," the bench told Naphade, who said he would circulate the bill among the parties in the case.
On September 18, the apex court had referred to the recent Rewari gang rape case and asked why no action was taken against media houses for flouting the law as 'everything has been said' about the 19-year-old victim.
In the Muzaffarpur case, over 30 girls were allegedly raped at the shelter home run by one Brajesh Thakur, the chief of a state-funded NGO.
The alleged sexual exploitation of the girls was first highlighted in an audit report submitted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences to the state's social welfare department.
A first information report was lodged against 11 people, including Thakur, on May 31. The probe was later taken over by the CBI.
The Supreme Court termed the facts emerging from CBI's probe as 'very disturbing' and asked the Bihar Police to probe the alleged recovery of large quantity of ammunition from former state minister Manju Verma and her husband.
Manju Verma had resigned as the Social Welfare Minister in the Bihar government after it came to light that her husband Chandrashekhar Verma had spoken to prime accused Brajesh Thakur several times between January and June this year.
The apex court, which observed that CBI's probe in the case seemed to be on track, said it was not clear whether illegal arms were also recovered from the possession of the Vermas and the matter needed to be looked into by the local police.
Taking note of the facts emerging from the two status reports filed by the CBI, the bench said that Thakur appeared to be a 'very influential' man, as his neighbours were scared to file any complaint against him despite the fact that they had heard screams of girls from the shelter home.
The bench said, "It has also come on record that one Chandrashekhar Verma and his wife Manju Verma have been in possession of illegal ammunition of a fairly large quantity. It is not clear whether they were in possession of illegal arms as well. The status report mentions that an FIR has been lodged against Chandrashekhar Verma and Manju Verma."
"The affairs of these two need to be looked into, particularly with regard to their procurement and possession of illegal ammunition and availability of illegal weapons, if any. We request the local police in the state of Bihar to look into this aspect with some degree of seriousness," it said.
The bench took note of the fact that the state's social welfare department had shifted some girls from the shelter home run by Brajesh Thakur in March this year, but the purpose of shifting was not clear.
"The status report also mentions that some girls were transferred on March 20, 2018 by social welfare department from the shelter home, which is the subject matter of present investigation by the CBI," it said.
It is not clear why these girls were transferred out, particularly when the report given by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) about the status of the shelter home was known to the state in May, the bench observed.
"The transfer seems to suggest that the social welfare department of the Government of Bihar was aware of certain unsavoury activities in the shelter home and that may have been the reason for transfer of the victim girls," it said.
"The CBI should seize the record of the social welfare department in this regard and carry out the investigation," it said and asked Bihar to file an affidavit indicating the circumstances necessitating the transfer of these girls.
Regarding Thakur, the bench said 'it appears that the person in-charge of the NGO 'Sewa Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti', Brajesh Thakur, is a very influential person and people in the neighbourhood are scared of him and not able to make any complaint against him'.
"In fact it has come out that people in the neighbourhood have heard screaming by the girls in the shelter home but they did not bring it to the notice of anybody because of the apparent terror of Brajesh Thakur. The CBI will need to look into the antecedents, connections and influence of Brajesh Thakur," the bench said.
Referring to the CBI's reports, it said the NGO had received around Rs 4.5 crore worth of funds from the state over a period of 10 years and 35 vehicles were purchased.
"The other assets of the NGO or Brajesh Thakur do not appear to be very clear. It is necessary, in our opinion, that the Income Tax Department should look into the income and assets of Brajesh Thakur and indeed of the NGO Sewa Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti," it said.
"The CBI team should request the Chief Commissioner/Commissioner having jurisdiction in the area to look into this matter and investigate the affairs of the NGO and of Brajesh Thakur from the income tax angle," it said.
The apex court said that issues concerning the shelter home was of an 'extremely serious nature' and requires a 'greater in-depth scrutiny' by the CBI.
It also directed the agency to file their next status report of investigation before it in a sealed cover within four weeks.
Earlier during the hearing, the bench said it had perused the two status reports filed by the CBI and the facts indicated that what had happened was 'very disturbing'.
"There is much more into it, than what meets the eyes," Justice Lokur told Attorney General K K Venugopal.
"It needs to be looked into very, very carefully," it said, adding, "You (CBI) continue with your investigation."
During the hearing, advocate Aparna Bhat, assisting the court as an amicus curiae in the matter, said the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) was assisting CBI on the psycho-social and rehabilitation issues of the victims and they may be permitted to complete the task by first week of October.
The bench said other agencies like TISS, should allow the CBI and NIMHANS for the time being to carry out their work.
The court has posted the matter for hearing on October 25.