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Justice A. K. Sikri on Sunday at Lawasia's first Human Rights Conference at New Delhi emphasized on the threat of surveillance by the state and said, "In so far as the contempt power is concerned, we are not using it that much in India"
The second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court, sitting in a panel of lawyers and journalists, Indian and international, discussing the matter of the "Freedom of the Press in the Digital Age", said that though it has been the opinion from many years that once a judgment is made, there exists the right of fair critique of the judgment, but now "slander and defamatory statements against judges" have become the order of the day.
"In the Maldives, the top court engages in not just initiating contempt but goes as far as suspending the licenses of the offending members of the bar...of course, now even before the Supreme Court here, a case has come and notice has been issued. Let's see what happens. I don't wish to say anything more on it...the matter is subjudice...", continued the judge.
Talking about today’s time and how the advancement of the digital age has changed the paradigm of civil and human rights, the judge showed concern about the consistently-rising trend of media trials- he said:
"Even when an issue has been raised and a petition is filed, even before it is taken up by the court, whether it is the Supreme Court or a High Court or a trial court in some sensational case, people start discussing what should be the outcome of the case and 'not what is going to be the outcome, but what should be the outcome' added specifically,"
Throwing light on how social media is misused by the general public, which is resulting in defamation and hate-speech quite often, Justice Sikri gave this phenomenon of media trials a name- "judging under stress". He noticed that although it is not a matter of problem at the Supreme Court level, because the judges who are appointed to this court are mature enough to understand how a case must be decided according to the law, without any hesitation and fear of the press, he said how even international judges are going through this thrust of the opinion as the media stresses the judges in the duty of deciding the cases. He said:
"This is an issue even internationally...I will be attending a conference at the Yale law school later this year on judging under stress, how it transpires across different jurisdictions"
Justice Sikri also raised the issue of the threat of surveillance which this advanced phenomenon called digitalisation poses, he added state does this surveillance instrumentality or even by private players (like Facebook, WhatsApp, twitter, etc he cited), and this is a huge challenge to human rights-
"data can be mined and collated to reveal your choices, preferences and thinking...if the business houses use this information to know what they need to do to grow their businesses, it may be acceptable. But where it affects the privacy of people, it becomes a dangerous instrument. Then it raises issues of dignity. The Supreme Court has been deliberating on this in the last few years, with the right to privacy being declared a Fundamental Right"
Justice Sikri finally said that the risk of paid and fake news, where stories are manipulated and fictionalized, and within only a few hours' time it goes viral. The judge also specifically raised out that despite its cons, this freedom of press in the wake of this digitization has become more equipped as a tool of "social welfare", he said its like "a watchdog for the citizens to realize that that democracy is still prevailing"- "the media is very much connected with social and economic issues, with moral development and for upholding of constitutional values" He further said how it is used more as a vehicle for dissemination of thoughts, passions and aversion towards political issue or ideologies. He said:
"Even as a consumer, if I want to buy something, I don't even need to surf the internet anymore- the Twitter updates on my cellphone tell me what are the various products available and on which platforms...so the digital age has definitely increased the reach and efficiency of media",.
Justice Sikri continued that the contours and the colors of free speech have completely changed in the digital age-
"with the popularization of the World Wide Web and the internet-based services, enormous volumes of content are being constantly created and transmitted. There is a New space of publication with virtually no entry cost. Everybody can express their views, unlike earlier. The Social media is so powerful- Twitter, WhatsApp, etc- people express and share their opinion, which becomes viral and reaches millions of people within hours...This improved freedom of press is Leading the democratization in the public realm"
"The Freedom of press is a form of freedom of speech, a human right, a Fundamental Right embodied in our Constitution...any number of judgments have been passed in this behalf in India as well as other jurisdictions...In a pluralistic governance, this Right is important for the fulfillment of other human rights. It is the fourth pillar of democracy..."
Also taking an example of former US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Justice Sikri said that "the free press was to serve the governed, not the governors". The judge indicated an article by American futurist Alvin Toffler, where this writer-businessman discussed about the gradual development of the society from one which is dependent on agricultural, to the industrial era with the emergence of the steam engine about 350 years ago, and last but not the leas the age of knowledge in the past 20-25 years which we also stand in today.
"He (Toffler) had stressed what we are infact witnessing today- that, unlike the earlier times, this knowledge-based society is changing everyday! Every 6 months, what we are seeing today becomes outdated and a new technology comes in. This has led to a creation of wealth, that is, more knowledge...the Top ten companies in the world today are knowledge-based companies- YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon, even Uber and Ola!"
Appraising the views of the panelists, not excluding ASG Madhavi Diwan and MadhuTrehan, Founding Editor, India Today, Justice Sikri said this pain of the digital age vis-a-vis the freedom of the press- "how surveillance and data mining by the government threatens a journalist and due to this their personal liberties get affected. These are the different scenario’s which needs to be looked into...How anti-fake news legislation can be misused by politicians and persons may be prosecuted..."
Tagged: Human right supreme court threat of surveillance by state private players Justice Sikri