A blanket gag order against the media is often fraught with serious consequences for both free speech and the citizens right to receive information. Orders by different courts, restraining the media from reporting on particular cases or programmes from being telecast, have drawn attention this week to questions of prior restraint, media freedom and the right of people facing investigation to a fair trial. A quite unusual and legally questionable decision has been the interim order of the Andhra Pradesh High Court imposing a ban on the media, and even social media, from mentioning anything in relation to an FIR filed by the police against a former Advocate General of the State and others. It is unusual in the sense that there appears to be no material to justify such censorship other than an allegation by the petitioner that it is a foisted case. It is also accompanied by an order staying the investigation itself. It is indeed open to a High Court to grant a stay on investigation in extraordinary cases. When political vendetta is alleged against the government of the day, that too by someone who had served a previous regime as a law officer, the need for media coverage and public scrutiny is all the greater. How the petitioner would benefit from the complete absence of any reportage is unclear. It prevents legitimate comment even to the effect that there is no substance in the allegations.
Injunctions against publication can either be an order to prevent possible defamation or invasion of privacy, or one aimed at protecting the fairness of a trial or investigation. The Supreme Court did hold in Sahara vs. SEBI (2012) that the Court can grant preventive relief on a balancing of the right to free trial and a free press. However, it favoured such temporary restraint on publication only in cases of real and substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice or a fair trial. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, on the same day, passed a more important interim order stopping the telecast of the remaining episodes of a series on Sudarshan News on entirely different grounds. Holding that the programme four episodes were aired was nothing but vilification of Muslims, the Court found it necessary to interdict the telecast of more episodes. The Court seems to have made a distinction between freedom of expression and propagation of hate. In recent years, there have been quite a few instances, especially in Karnataka, of omnibus interim injunctions against all media houses obtained by some people solely to prevent any news reporting about themselves. While claiming to be defamed by one publication, they sue all media outlets and obtain open-ended stay on publications, including those that are hardly interested in writing about them. As a matter of principle, courts ought to avoid omnibus orders against publication. Such orders are often to the detriment of the right to know.