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SC rejects Allahabad HC gag order on media

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Friday quashed a five-month-old Allahabad high court order gagging print and electronic media from reporting the controversy related to alleged movement of Army units towards Delhi on January 16 which reports claimed had "spooked" the government.Allowing an appeal filed by the Press Council of India (PCI), a bench of Justices H L Dattu and C K Prasad found merit in senior advocate P P Rao's argument that the high court was wrong in passing the gag order without issuing notice to affected media parties and giving a relief which was not even sought by the writ petitioners.

Rao said, "It is a permanent ban on reporting. This could not be done by the HC considering the recent constitution bench judgment of the Supreme Court, which ruled that only a temporary deferment of reporting can be ordered only when the reporting appeared to prejudice fair trial." The bench asked additional solicitor general Indira Jaising about the Union government's stand on the HC's ban order. Though the government had denied the inference drawn by media on the alleged January 16 troop movement from Agra towards Delhi, Jaising said, "The Union government does not support the gag order."

Immediately after the Centre clarified its stand, the bench dictated the order allowing the petition and setting aside the HC order of April 10. This is the first time PCI has moved the SC for protection of press freedom. The HC, while dismissing a PIL on April 10, had directed the Union home secretary, information & broadcasting secretary and UP home secretary "to ensure that there was no reporting/release of any news item by the print as well as electronic media relating to the subject matter, namely, the movement of troops as contained in the news item".

The PCI extracted the detailed order of its chairman Markandey Katju in its special leave petition and said, "Due to the said ban, the discharge of the legitimate functions of the fourth estate will be jeopardized in as much as their hands will be tied, leading to violation of their fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression." In its appeal filed through advocate Manju Sharma, PCI had said, "Indian Army is not a colonial army but the army of the Indian people who pay taxes which meet the entire defence budget, including salaries, cost of weapons, equipment, etc. Hence, people have a right to know about the activities of the Indian Army except where it compromises national security.