NEW DELHI: On November 7, 2017, the Allahabad High Court ordered a gag on media reporting on the issue of sanction by the State to prosecute Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for a speech deemed to incite violence, made in 2007. The Court order gives no reasons for the gag order other than alleged “misreporting” by media “causing a lot of embarrassment” to the state. Preventing the media from reporting and the public from being aware about the fate of cases in which public personalities are implicated, strikes at the core of freedom of expression.

In January 2007, Yogi Adityanath delivered an inciting communally charged speech in Gorakhpur post an altercation between Hindus and Muslims, violating the district magistrate’s orders imposing Sec. 144. The riots spread across Gorakhpur causing loss of life and damage to property. 29 criminal cases were filed related to the riots, of which Yogi Adityanath’s hate speech case was one. An FIR was registered against Adityanath in only in November 2008 after a civilian approached court. In April 2015, CB-CID sought sanction from state government to file a charge-sheet against Adityanath, but it was delayed.

After the government in the state changed this year and Adityanath became the Chief Minister of UP, the Allahabad court was informed that UP government has refused sanction to prosecute him. The media gag order was pronounced in the context of an ongoing hearing on a writ petition filed by two private individuals challenging the denial of sanction. The private individuals who have filed the petition asking for prosecution of Adityanath, through their counsel have stated in the media that they fear for their life. In such a scenario, non-reporting of the case in public renders the petitioners even more vulnerable.

Rule of law mandates that consequences and punitive action follow after the establishment of the commission of acts constituting infraction of law and/or the commission of offences. In case there has been misreporting – the proper course is for the High Court to cite the specific law violated and then pursue the remedy provided therein against the particular persons and media responsible as per law. But the HC has neither engaged in establishing the commission of the act i.e. misreporting by media and nor has it specified violation of any law in the order.

Now, another media gag has been ordered citing “security” reasons in the high-profile Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. In this, Amit Shah, President of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of the accused who has not appeared even once for a hearing despite repeated directions by special CBI court in Maharashtra. (The court has not made clear what it means by security and how it will be implicated if the media reports the proceedings).

Freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and even “reasonable” restrictions on Constitutional freedoms cannot countenance keeping the citizens uninformed. The right to know and form an informed opinion is inevitable in a democracy, the absence of which would create a climate of impunity for egregious violators, especially public personalities commonly known for their inciting statements and/or for complicity in heinous crimes.

The Courts are bound to follow the Rule of law as well as uphold Constitutional freedoms and cannot extinguish fundamental rights. A high profile case involving one of the most powerful men in the country requires constant public scrutiny which the media provides and citizens deserve. PUDR strongly condemns the 7th November, 2017 Allahabad High Court order barring the media from reporting on the proceedings in the case and demands immediate revoking of the gag order.

(Cijo Joy, Anushka Singh are secretaries, Peoples Union of Democratic Rights)