Under Judgement

The media must take the lead in upholding standards of court reporting

01 December 2014
The media has made little room for a careful examination of how standards in legal journalism can be maintained
Sunil Saxena / Hindustan Times / Gety Images
The media has made little room for a careful examination of how standards in legal journalism can be maintained
Sunil Saxena / Hindustan Times / Gety Images

ON 31 OCTOBER, the Times of India published an article with the headline: “For child’s passport, unwed mother needs to declare if she was raped: Centre to HC.” According to the report, towards the end of a hearing on a matter related to the issuance of passports, a judge raised the tangential question of what procedure was to be followed in the case of children of unwed mothers. In response, the lawyer for the Ministry of External Affairs cited a rule from the passport manual, which became the basis of the Times headline.

The MEA’s official spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, soon found himself facing a deluge of opprobrium on news websites and social media. On the defensive, he tweeted an image of the affidavit form to be filled by any single parent applying for a passport for his or her child—it included a section that asked whether the applicant had been deserted by the child’s other parent, but Akbaruddin asserted that women could leave it blank. The next day, the Times News Network and other outlets reported a clarification, in which Akbaruddin said that the MEA lawyer’s statement to the court was “absolutely contrary to what the government of India or the ministry of external affairs stands for.”

The din soon subsided, but one question remained unanswered: had the MEA’s clarification settled the point that had been raised in court? In short, no. For such a clarification to have any legal standing, the government would have to file an affidavit confirming it before the bench hearing the case. But the media wasn’t interested in this technicality and the matter ended with Akbaruddin’s sound bite.

Saurav Datta  works in the fields of criminal justice reforms and media law. He is associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and also teaches in Bombay and Pune. Opinions are personal.

Keywords: Indian media court reporting Syed Akbaruddin legal journalism
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