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Sanjay Pinto is an advocate currently practicing in the Madras High Court. He specialises in Media, Constitutional, Criminal, Consumer and Arbitration Law. Following his graduation in History and Politics at Loyola College, Chennai, he completed his law degree from Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College, Chennai.
Prior to taking up legal practice, he was a prominent figure in journalism. Starting with the role of Tamil Nadu correspondent at NDTV New Delhi Television in 1998, he has gone on to serve as Bureau Chief for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry at NDTV 24×7, Executive Editor of NDTV-Hindu and Resident Editor for Tamil Nadu at NDTV 24×7. He has also made forays into hosting radio talk shows, writing columns for leading national dailies and has two published books to his credit.
In this interview for Bar & Bench, he talks about his transition from journalism to legal practice, his views on the role of media and his latest book ‘Justice For All’.
You have had an illustrious career in journalism before you turned to legal practice. Why did you take that decision?
I had graduated in Law in ’97 and was a National Debating Champion representing the Dr. Ambedkar Government Law College, Chennai. When I passed out, the one-year compulsory Apprenticeship Rule was in force. So I joined NDTV and did not get enrolled as an Advocate.
When I sniffed out symptoms of burnout in the rough and tumble of breaking news on TV, I decided to slow down and tweaked my role to that of a consultant. From heading a news bureau in a volatile region, I got an opportunity to editorially head a local news channel from the NDTV stable – NDTV Hindu as its Executive Editor. From a player in the national side, this was like being a skipper of a Ranji Cricket Team! I spearheaded the live telecast of 17 news bulletins a day and got to anchor my own flagship shows.
But when the channel was sold owing to marketing and distribution challenges, I took a sabbatical to get enrolled as a lawyer. Soon enough, I realised that I needed to spend quality time with my family, and that if you are not in the headquarters of national TV channels, your title may change, like mine did (Resident Editor), but your job description would remain the same – that of a reporter. The transition from the newsroom to the courtroom was complete in 2012.
Have you experienced any ideological shift in perspective following your transition from journalism to legal practice?
I was more idealistic as a journalist. Now, I’m more realistic! On TV, I would create public opinion. In law, I can actually be an instrument of change through the courts. The biggest change in mindset is the pace of work. On TV it was the thrill of breaking news, even seconds before your competitors. You get to see the results of your work in seconds, minutes or hours. In legal practice, adjournments are for weeks or even months. And cases drag on for years.
I remember how while arguing a PIL before a Bench of the Madras High Court, the Additional Solicitor General representing the Union of India had asked for a month to file his counter, and I exclaimed: “What? One month!” The judge smiled and retorted: “Mr. Counsel, the Government does not work as fast as the media!”
In your view, should the role of media personnel be confined to unpainted reporting of events, or should they should be free to colour their reports with their own perspective?
News reportage is about telling it like it is. ‘Colour’ has no place here. I have always believed that a good journalist must be politically accurate, never politically correct. In a TV news story, a piece to camera affords a reporter the opportunity to add perspective and analysis. Ditto with a news discussion or debate.
The media, regarded as the watchdog of democracy, must be allowed to bark and also bite, when required. I remember the advice of the then Bureau Chief of the Indian Express Mrs. Rasheeda Bhagat when I was a student journalist.
“A journalist must first be a good human being. It’s only when you feel for others, can you do justice to your job.”
So perspective, yes. Bias, no.
Are there significant defects with the current legal/judicial process of the country, affecting its adequate implementation and reach to the common man? If so, what do you think is the best way to go about addressing them?
Many legal issues have been dissected in my weekly legal column ‘Justice For All’ in the Deccan Chronicle, over the last 100 weeks. The biggest challenge is addressing the delay. A cap on the number of adjournments and perhaps even appeals could be considered. The procedural maze needs to be looked into and simplified.
In the US, most cases are settled through a robust alternative dispute resolution mechanism. Arbitration & Mediation are gaining momentum, but we do have a long way to go.
For instance, in an Arbitration case I fought for an international squash champion. I filed applications for interim relief under Section 9 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act and for appointment of an Arbitrator under Section 11, and even after winning a favourable arbitral award, no relief is in sight as the Respondent seems to have wound up operations and an Execution Petition would also not serve a purpose.
Finally, e-filing of cases would be a boon to both lawyers and litigants, and also the environment.
Your recent book, ‘Justice For All’ addresses the concern of simplifying incomprehensible intricacies of law. What inspired you to write the book?
Law for the layman – that was the goal. Most of our laws are complex and a common man cannot easily comprehend them.
By picking 24 branches of law such as criminal, constitutional, banking, insurance, property, consumer law etc. and dwelling on specific aspects like filing an FIR or your rights as a home buyer, I have tried to create legal awareness among citizens. The book is a compendium of 85 longer versions of my legal columns.
Following the Jallikattu issue, some opine that its legacy could be in reducing the sanctity of law by making it vulnerable to public pressure. Thoughts?
I had locked horns with a legal luminary on this issue on a prime time debate on Times Now. While I am all for animal welfare, cultural rights under the Constitution cannot be ignored. With effective regulation and adequate safeguards, it is possible to dovetail culture with welfare.
The Marina Uprising was unprecedented as it was largely spontaneous, disciplined and led by the youth with no vested interests. The culmination unfortunately turned violent. But those youngsters gave meaning to representative democracy and made legislators reflect their will. You cannot suppress an idea whose time has come. There’s a Mexican saying: “they buried us, forgetting we were seeds.”
You have said, in your book, “Defamation law must be a shield, not a sword”. What do you think is the ideal approach when it comes to dealing with defamation?
I do believe that criminal defamation has a chilling effect on the fundamental right to free speech. The trial is the punishment here. The Supreme Court in its wisdom stopped short of decriminalising defamation, as free speech under Article 19(1)(a) cannot degenerate into a free for all, given the reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2).
The anonymity and trolling on social media and the venom that can be spewed on this platform was definitely a factor. Although Section 499 of the IPC has ten exceptions, the trial is the punishment. Civil defamation involves court fee, and honestly a person accused of defamation cannot be allowed to cherry-pick what action is to be initiated against him! So I feel that defamation, particularly criminal, must be sparingly used.
What impact do you hope that your book would have on the masses?
Frankly, most chapters can give rise to PILs! I do expect my readers to get legally empowered and question injustice or wrong practices. For instance, the discrimination meted out to senior citizens by medical insurance companies. I am a product of a middle class background with middle class values born out of middle class struggles. My book reflects that thinking and will hopefully pass muster with the masses who constitute its target audience.