THE HINDU EDITORIAL : DECEMBER 4, 2017

a) Bit of a bubble? — on bitcoins and cryptocurrencies

One lakh rupees invested in bitcoin in 2010 would be worth a few hundred crore rupees today. That is the kind of extraordinary return the digital currency has given investors as its price has witnessed a meteoric rise, from just a few cents in 2010 to hit a lifetime high of over $11,000 last week. In 2017 alone, bitcoin price has increased by over 1000%. In fact, all it took for the currency to reach $11,000 after breaching the $10,000 mark was a single day. True to its nature, however, soon after hitting $11,000, bitcoin witnessed a sharp drop of 20% before recovering some of its losses to close the day almost flat. Other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum too have shown equally impressive gains and falls, particularly over the last year. Enthusiasts argue that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are rapidly transforming into mainstream money that will offer serious competition to national currencies issued by central banks. Therefore they see bitcoin’s current price rise as merely a reflection of its bright future as a stateless currency. Its limited supply and the blockchain technology on which it functions, they say, have also added to its exotic appeal. Sceptics, however, have pointed to the Tulip Bubble of the 17th century and Internet stocks of the late 1990s as cautionary examples. The most notable among the critics has been J.P.Morgan chief executive officer Jamie Dimon who called bitcoin a “fraud” that will make its investors poor. Whether bitcoin holds huge fundamental value as a medium of exchange, as many of its supporters claim, is yet to be seen. The blockchain technology may well have some merits, as shown by increasing interest in it even among central banks and other financial institutions. Many have even started offering financial products and services centered around bitcoin. Yet the fundamental value of any currency is based not on its underlying technology but on its general acceptability as money for the purpose of commerce. Bitcoin, or any other crypto currency, is nowhere close to widespread use as a medium that helps in the exchange of goods and services. Earlier this year, a Morgan Stanley research note concluded that bitcoin’s acceptance “is virtually zero”. In fact, it found that the acceptance of bitcoin among the top 500 online retailers actually dropped in the last year. What then explains bitcoin’s huge price rise? The fear of missing out on extraordinary gains, achievable within extremely short periods of time in the case of bitcoin, has likely pulled people from all walks of life into the digital currency. This is typical of bubbles that are driven by emotion rather than value. It is also a telling sign of the times where easy monetary policy has pushed investors starved of yield in traditional assets into highly risky assets like bitcoin.

b) The gag on free speech

On Wednesday, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Court, hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati fake encounter cases, issued a gag order prohibiting the press from reporting on the court proceedings. This order, allegedly issued at the behest of the lawyers for the defence has come only a few days after the Allahabad High Court gagged the media from reporting on an ongoing case concerning an alleged instance of hate speech by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, in 2007, who was then a Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarian from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

A growing trend

These two instances, which are not isolated, are representative of an alarming trend of creeping judicial censorship, increasingly across large domains. The Indian judiciary has had a historically ambivalent relationship with free speech, from upholding the constitutionality of sedition in 1962, to endorsing the law of criminal defamation in 2016. Recently, however, it has begun to go further than simply rejecting constitutional challenges to the state’s speech-restrictive laws. Traversing well beyond the bounds of the Constitution, it has begun to actively censor or compel speech of its own accord, without even the existence of a parliamentary law on the subject. Recent, notorious examples include the Bombay High Court constituting a “committee” to recommend cuts to the satirical film, “Jolly LLB 2”, the Madras High Court telling condom manufacturers to have the illustrations on their packets cleared by the Advertising Standards Council of India, and the Supreme Court directing cinema halls to play the national anthem before the screening of every movie. However, the CBI Court and the Allahabad High Court’s gag orders, are significantly more serious because they strike at the heart of our system of democratic governance. The task of courts under the Constitution is to deliver justice, and a functional democracy is defined by a justice system that is open, transparent, and, above all, public. The authority of judges and courts, we must always remember, stems not from popular consent and periodic elections, but from their fidelity to the laws and the Constitution, and the strength and quality of their legal reasoning. For these reasons, “secret justice” — bringing to mind the infamous trials of the Star Chamber in medieval England — is a paradox in terms. As the great British judge, Lord Diplock, noted, “if the way that courts behave cannot be hidden from the public ear and eye, this provides a safeguard against judicial arbitrariness or idiosyncrasy and maintains the public confidence in the administration of justice.”

Tracing the line

Unfortunately, however, the judicial gag orders, by the CBI Court and the Allahabad High Court, were enabled, at least in part, by the Supreme Court itself (although it is questionable whether the CBI Court had even the power to pass a gag order, let us assume, for the purpose of argument, that it did). In 2012, the Supreme Court held that in certain circumstances, courts could pass “postponement orders” barring coverage of specific judicial proceedings. The court framed the issue as requiring a balancing of two competing rights: the right to free speech, and the right to a fair trial. Observing that sometimes excessive publicity could jeopardise a fair trial, the court held that to the extent it was reasonable and proportionate, “prior restraints” on court reporting could be imposed. There are, however, two problems with this. First, the idea that “media trials” might distort the outcomes of cases makes sense in a jury system, where guilt or innocence is decided by a jury of twelve men and women who do not possess specialised legal training, and need to be immunised from undue forms of influence. In India, however, we abolished jury trials more than 40 years ago, and it is judges now who decide cases on their own. Judges, by definition, are not only supposed to apply the law but also have to have the relevant training and temperament to apply the law regardless of whatever public outcry that might exist outside the courtroom. The argument for fair trial, therefore, betrays a startling lack of faith in the judiciary’s own ability to decide controversial cases objectively. Second, and more importantly, the 2012 Supreme Court judgment failed to adequately limit the kinds of cases in which these exceptional “postponement orders” could be passed; it failed to limit the duration for which they could be passed. In fact, by using subjective words such as “reasonable” and “proportionate”, it left the door wide open for future courts to issue sweeping gag orders, insulating themselves from public reporting and, thereby, public criticism. As media and civil rights lawyer Apar Gupta noted at the time, the judgment was so “open to interpretation and probable abuse” that, in the course of the years, it could well transform itself into a “gag writ.” The recent orders of the CBI Court and the Allahabad High Court indicate that this is precisely what has happened.

Handling misreporting

It is often argued that the media reports court proceedings inaccurately; judicial observations are published out of context just to provide good headline copy, and sometimes, there is outright misquotation. In fact, this was precisely the reason cited by the Allahabad High Court to justify the gag order, although the court did not provide any examples of “misquotation”. There are, however, laws to deal with inaccurate reporting, especially the Contempt of Courts Act, which the judiciary has never shied away from invoking. Perhaps more importantly, however, there is a more straightforward way of dealing with the spectre of misreporting: to make written transcripts and audio or video recordings of court proceedings available to the public. Until that happens, to ban reporting of court proceedings by invoking “misquotation” is to invoke a bogey at worst, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater at best. Of course, there might be situations where inaccurate reporting could cause imminent damage. Imagine, for example, the cross-examination of the principal accused in a communal riot, in an already charged atmosphere. There might also be situations where a case involves arguments pertaining to national security, which cannot at that time be made public. In these situations, a temporary halt on reporting could be justifiable, but it is in the very nature of these situations that the bar would be limited to a single hearing, and only in the most exceptional of situations. The CBI Court and the Allahabad High Court’s sweeping gag orders do not even come close to satisfying that condition. Ultimately, the trial courts and the high courts take their cue from the Supreme Court, which is the ultimate driver of jurisprudence. And unfortunately, earlier this year, the Supreme Court passed a sweeping gag order of its own. While convicting (the now retired) Justice Karnan of contempt of court, a bench comprising the seven senior-most judges of the Supreme Court ordered that “no further statements issued by Shri Justice C.S. Karnan would be publicized”. Whatever the special circumstances of that case, there is little doubt that such a command sends a clear message about the appropriateness of sweeping gag orders, should a court feel that they are necessary. The CBI Court and the Allahabad High Court’s gag orders demonstrate an urgent need for some conscious course-correction by the judiciary. They come with a democratic cost that is simply too high to pay: sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. Often, it is the only disinfectant.

WORDS/VOCABULARY

1) Meteoric

Meaning: (of the development of something) very rapid.

Example: “her meteoric rise to the top of her profession”

Synonyms: Rapid, Swift

Antonyms: Slow, Gradual

2) Breaching

Meaning: Break or fail to observe (a law, agreement, or code of conduct).

Example: “these outside bodies are bootlegging albums and breaching copyright”

Synonyms: Break, Violate

3) Cryptocurrencies

Meaning: A digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.

Example: “decentralized cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin now provide an outlet for personal wealth that is beyond restriction and confiscation”

4) Blockchain

Meaning: A digital ledger in which transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly.

Example: “we can actually have a look at the blockchain and see evidence of what’s going on”

5) Sceptics

Meaning: A person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.

Example: “sceptics said the marriage wouldn’t last”

Synonyms: Doubter, Questioner

Antonyms: Believer

6) Bubbles

Meaning: A situation in which you only experience things that you expect or find easy to deal with, for example opinions you agree with, or people who are similar to you.

Example: The candidate liked to talk to ordinary people to get a fix on what was happening outside his bubble.

7) Behest

Meaning: A person’s orders or command.

Example: “they had assembled at his behest”

Synonyms: Instruction, Request

8) Gagged

Meaning: Prevent (someone) from speaking freely or disseminating information.

Example: “the government is trying to gag its critics”

Synonyms: Silence, Mute

Antonyms: Encourage

9) Concerning

Meaning: On the subject of or in connection with; about.

Example: “we are given little information concerning matters of national security”

Synonyms: Regarding, About

10) Isolated

Meaning: Far away from other places, buildings, or people; remote.

Example: “isolated farms and villages”

Synonyms: Remote, Lonely

Antonyms: Acessible

11) Alarming

Meaning: Make (someone) feel frightened, disturbed, or in danger.

Example: “the government was alarmed by an outbreak of unrest”

Synonyms: Frighten, Scare

Antonyms: Reassuring

12) Creeping

Meaning: Move slowly and carefully in order to avoid being heard or noticed.

Example: “he crept downstairs, hardly making any noise”

Synonyms: Crawl, wriggle

13) Ambivalent

Meaning: Having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.

Example: “some loved her, some hated her, few were ambivalent about her”

Synonyms: Equivocal, Uncertain

Antonyms: Unequivocal, Certain

14) Upholding

Meaning: Confirm or support (something which has been questioned).

Example: “the court upheld his claim for damages”

Synonyms: Confirm, Endorse

Antonyms: Overturn, Oppose

15) Sedition

Meaning: Conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.

Example: “advocating multiparty democracy is considered sedition”

Synonyms: Agitation, Revolt

16) Endorsing

Meaning: Sign (a cheque or bill of exchange) on the back to make it payable to someone other than the stated payee or to accept responsibility for paying it; declare one’s public approval or support of.

Example: “the speed and accuracy achieved will be endorsed on the certificate”

Synonyms: Countersign, Super scribe

Antonyms: Oppose

17) Defamation

Meaning: The action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel.

Example: “she sued him for defamation”

Synonyms: Libel, Abuse

Antonyms: Commendation

18) Traversing

Meaning: Extend across or through; travel across or through.

Example: “a moving catwalk that traversed a vast cavernous space”

Synonyms: Negotiate, Range

19) Notorious

Meaning: famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed.

Example: “Los Angeles is notorious for its smog”

Synonyms: Infamous, Ill-famed

Antonyms: Unknown, Anonyms

20) Satirical

Meaning: Sarcastic, critical, and mocking another’s weaknesses.

Example: “his satirical sense of humour”

Synonyms: Mocking, Satiric

21) Consent

Meaning: Permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.

Example: “no change may be made without the consent of all the partners”

Synonyms: Agreement, Assent

Antonyms: Dissent

22) Fidelity

Meaning: The degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.

Example: “the 1949 recording provides reasonable fidelity”

Synonyms: Accuracy, Exactness

Antonyms: Inaccuracy

23) Medieval

Meaning: Relating to the Middle Ages.

Example: “a medieval castle”

Synonyms: Early

Antonyms: Modern

24) Arbitrariness

Meaning: The quality of being based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

Example: “disparate peoples were forced together by the arbitrariness of a colonial map-maker’s pen”

25) Idiosyncrasy

Meaning: A distinctive or peculiar feature or characteristic of a place or thing.

Example: “the idiosyncrasies of the prison system”

Synonyms: Oddity, Vagary

26) Barring

Meaning: Except for; if not for.

Example: “barring accidents, we should win”

Synonyms: Except, Excluding

Antonyms: Including

27) Competing

Meaning: Strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.

Example: “universities are competing for applicants”

Synonyms: Participate, Engage

28) Jeopardise

Meaning: Put (someone or something) into a situation in which there is a danger of loss, harm, or failure.

Example: “a devaluation of the dollar would jeopardize New York’s position as a financial centre”

Synonyms: Threaten, Endanger

Antonyms: Safeguard

29) Possess

Meaning: Have as belonging to one; own.

Example: “I do not possess a television set”

Synonyms: Own, Hold

30) Immunised

Meaning: Make (a person or animal) immune to infection, typically by inoculation.

Example: “the vaccine is used to immunize children against measles”

Synonyms: Vaccinate, Inoculate

31) Temperament

Meaning: The tendency to behave angrily or emotionally.

Example: “he had begun to show signs of temperament”

Synonyms: Volatility, Irritability

Antonyms: Phlegm

32) Betrays

Meaning: Treacherously reveal (information).

Example: “many of those employed by diplomats betrayed secrets”

Synonyms: Reveal, Disclose

Antonyms: Conceal, Hide

33) Startling

Meaning: Very surprising, astonishing, or remarkable.

Example: “he bore a startling likeness to their father”

Synonyms: Astonishing, Amazing

Antonyms: Predictable, Ordinary

34) Writ

Meaning: A form of written command in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in a particular way.

Example: “the two reinstated officers issued a writ for libel against the applicants”

Synonyms: Summons, Warrant

35) Misquotation

Meaning: To repeat something someone has said in a way that is not accurate

Example: I never said that at all – the press misquoted me.

36) Pertaining

Meaning: Be appropriate, related, or applicable to.

Example: “matters pertaining to the organization of government”

Synonyms: Affect, Involve

37) Convicting

Meaning: Declare (someone) to be guilty of a criminal offence by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law.

Example: “her former boyfriend was convicted of assaulting her”

Synonyms: Sentence

Antonyms: Acquit, Clear

38) Contempt

Meaning: Disregard for something that should be considered.

Example: “this action displays an arrogant contempt for the wishes of the majority”

Synonyms: Disrespect, Disregard

Antonyms: Respect

39) Conscious

Meaning: Aware of and responding to one’s surroundings.

Example: “although I was in pain, I was conscious”

Synonyms: Aware, Awake

Antonyms: Unconscious, Unaware

40) Disinfectant

Meaning: A chemical liquid that destroys bacteria; causing disinfection.

Example: “all surfaces are cleaned manually or by pressure washer with disinfectant”

Synonyms: Cleanser, Antiseptic


 

 

 

 

 

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