MEDIA TRIAL IN INDIA: A STUMBLING BLOCK TO THE TENENTS OF JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS?
“The problem with the electronic media is all about TRPs, leading to more and more sensationalism, damage reputation of people and masquerade as form of right”
- Supreme Court of India in Sudharhan’s News Case
Since immemorial times, we have seen the Courts all over India administrating justice to the parties. The divine principles of natural justice and presumption of innocence enshrined in Article 14 and 21 have always been upheld by the Supreme Court as part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. Now in the present, these principles have been seen to be fading away by a new black plaque called Media Trial. Media which is of no doubt has always been regarded as the 4th pillar of Democracy is seen to be becoming a piece of machinery for impairing and defeating the well-found notions of justice and fairness. It is to be noted that in the mere pursuit of getting maximum viewership/audience, the media has proclaimed itself as the adjudicator to decide who is guilty or innocent even before the commencement of trial before the actual Court.
What does Media Trial mean?
A trial in a simple layman’s language literally means a judicial process of ascertaining the guilt or innocence of a person charged with an offence by an impartial presiding officer of the Court. However, the definition of media stands completely contrasts to the aforesaid definition of trial. Media trial, this is to say, is a phenomenon of labelling or declaring a prime accused as a convict even before the commencement of trial before the Court. The essential element of a media trial is generally that a case is sub-judice (pending before the Criminal Court. Under this type of trial by Media, a person who has been declared as an accused or suspect by the police is portrayed or depicted as a convict by levelling a number of accusations such as inviting the key witnesses of the case on their show to testify, soliciting evidence from unknown sources and so on. The media should not be solely held responsible for prejudicing the accused that is not even charged and put on a trial; it is the public audience too which for just the sake of entertainment and gossip lends support to the media by watching it.
From time to time in a series of judgements delivered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, the right to fair trial and practice of the media of pronouncing the accused already as a convict has been strongly deprecated by the Hon’ble Court. In the matter of Zahira Habibulla Sheikh vs. State Of Gujarat ((2004) 4 SCC 158) it was held that the right to fair trial and investigation is enshrined implicitly into Article 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution and every citizen has a vested right to enjoy them. Moreover, we can cite almost every judgement of the Court whether it is the High Court or the Supreme Court that the right to a fair trial is the gemstone of criminal jurisprudence. Notwithstanding these cardinal principles, the media has always breached the line of separation between Media and Judiciary. Trial by media is not a new phenomenon in our Indian legal system; this could be evidenced by the case of K.M. Nanavati Vs. state of Maharashtra (AIR 1962 SC 605 (630)) where due to unprecedented media attention and coverage, thereby leading the case into the limelight. The widespread publicity received from the public actually hampered the trial. Moving on to the matter of Dr. Shashi Tharoor vs. Arnab Goswami (CS(OS) 253/2017), the Delhi High Court observed that:
“This Court is of the opinion that it is the function and right of the media to gather and convey information to the public and to comment on the administration of justice, including cases before, during, and after trial, without violating the presumption of innocence. In fact, the presumption of innocence and a fair trial is at the heart of criminal jurisprudence and in way important facets of a democratic polity that is governed by rule of law. Journalists are free to investigate but they cannot pronounce anyone guilty and/or pre-judge the issue and/or prejudice the trial. The grant of the fairest of the opportunity to the accused to prove his innocence is the object of every fair trial. Conducting a fair trial is beneficial both to the accused as well as to society. A conviction resulting from an unfair trial is contrary to the concept of justice”
From the aforesaid judgement of Hon'ble High Court of Delhi, the law is well settled about the constitutionality of media trials. There exist a co-relative duty between rights and duties, that is to say, media is free to exercise its right in such a manner not to impair or prejudice the rights of someone who is yet to be put on trial by the Court. It is settled law that a person cannot exercise its right in derogation of others.
RIFT BETWEEN MEDIA TRIAL & ARTICLE 19(1) (A)
There are several instances where the media often take the defence of Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution for getting away from the censorship laws. Article 19(1) (a) grants the citizens of India freedom of speech and expression, the said Article is also popularly known as the Trademark of Democracy because it allows the citizens to express their opinions or disappointment about the Government in power. But as we all know no right is absolute in a civilised society and the media is no exception to this rule too. Clause 2 of Article 19 provides that the Parliament can make any law to impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression on grounds enumerated in the Constitution. Contempt of Court and Security of the state are generally used to curtail the overzealous media conducting the trial. There has to be a balance between rights and restrictions. Recently, in the matter of Election Commission of India V. MR Vijaya Bhaskar (SLP (C ) 6731 of 2021)the Hon’ble Supreme Court while dealing with a petition filed by an official of Election Commission, praying for an injunction against the media to stop the publication of oral observations made by Madras High Court. The gist of the petition was that the Madras High Court made strong observations against the Election Commission that they should be charged with murder in FIR on their failure to regulate the political parties' rallies during the Covid-19 crisis. While dismissing the petition, the Supreme Court held that freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) (a) extends to reporting judicial proceedings as well and the media has the right to report the oral observations made by the Court since it is a part of administrating justice.
The aforesaid judgement has struck a right balance between the rights of media and its restrictions. However, the media continues to flout the orders of the Courts and embarks on its finding of guilt or innocence of the accused. In the matter of Sahara India Real Estate Limited vs. SEBI (Civil Application No. 9813 of 2011) (Also Known as Media Guidelines Case) the facts of the case were that there was some kind of privileged communication exchanged between the Counsels from each side and the terms of the settlement were leaked by some unknown source and eventually, it was broadcasted on a news channel highlighting each term of the settlement. The Supreme Court was devastated to see how the news channel got the reports of private settlement being exchanged between the parties. The Court, therefore, observed that:
“We are distressed to note that even “without prejudice” proposals sent by learned counsel for the appellants to the learned counsel for SEBI have come on one of the TV channels. Such incidents are increasing by the day. Such reporting not only affects the business sentiments but also interferes in the administration of justice”
The Supreme Court in the end held that though it recognizes the right of media to report judicial proceedings, in some exceptional cases in the interest of the public, the media is generally advised not to report any findings until the further orders of the Court.
Similarly, in Rhea Chakraborty vs. Union of India (Bail Application No. 2386 of 2020) (Popularly known as Sushant Singh Rajput Case) - This case was undoubted, one of the most sensational and popularised cases in the history of the Indian legal system due to the death of late Bollywood Actor Sushant Singh Rajput under suspicious circumstances. The fact that this case generated a lot of public attention on account of heavy reporting of media trials on every news channel. Every news channel telecasted its own theories about the unnatural sudden death of Sushant Singh. Sushant’s girlfriend was projected as a murderer, gold digger, and so on by different colourful names. The public was led to believe by the media that she was the real convict and should be given a death sentence. There was an absolute transgression of right of privacy of the accused; several media channels revealed her personal details like bank account, WhatsApp chats, and even her bank balance. Unfortunately, it is a sad truth that the media almost assumed itself the role of the Judiciary in deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused in this case.
In the landmark judgement of R.K. Anand vs. Delhi High Court (Criminal Appeal of 1393 of 2008) (Also known as the Black BMW Case) - The contempt proceedings against Mr. R.K Anand were initiated on suo motu cognizance taken by the Delhi High Court on the basis of a sting operation conducted by NDTV, a news channel. The learned Counsel was seen negotiating with the Special Prosecutor for handling out the key eye-witness of the trial in the favour of defence. They didn’t know about the fact that they were being recorded by a mini camera. The sting operation revealed how the prosecution was acting hand in glove with the accused. The main issue was before the Court that whether this kind of sting operation deems to be a media trial? Answering the question in negative, the Court held that these sting operations does not amount to a media trial but quickly remarked that “This is, however, not to say that media is free to publish any kind of report concerning a sub-judice matter or to do a sting on some matter concerning a pending trial in any manner they please. The legal parameter within which a report or comment on a sub-judice matter can be made is well defined and any action in breach of the legal bounds would invite consequences”.
ADVERSE IMPACTS DUE TO MEDIA TRIAL
The plaque of the Media trial does more harm than good, it does not only affect the personal life of the accused but as well as damages the years of the reputation built by that person in the society. Consequently, that affected person fails to secure employment on account of heavy reporting of biased facts about him/her by the media. The repercussions of media trial start very early from the first stage when the accused is produced before the Magistrate, whose mind might already be prejudiced by the media trial. Justice Kurian Joseph, who was a part of the SC bench which pronounced its judgement in Mukesh Vs. State for N.C.T. of Delhi (S.L.P. (Criminal) No. 3119-3120 of 2014) (Popularly known as Nirbhaya Gang Rape Case) once remarked about the pressure put on him by the media during the trial of that case. He observed "If I had not given that punishment they would have hung me, the media had already given their verdict, (like) it is going to be this only," this statement speaks by itself that how the judges of the Supreme Court are vulnerable to the threat of media trial. Media Trial strikes at the root of impartiality and fairness and that is the reason why it should not be allowed.
SAFEGUARDS/PROTECTIVE MEASURES WHICH CAN BE TAKEN AGAINST TRIAL BY MEDIA
An aggrieved person, that is to say, who has been or apprehends to be prejudiced by the media trial may approach the High Court for grant of perpetual/mandatory injunction under respective Sections 38, 39 of the Specific Relief Act, 1963 against the media channels compelling them to stop the frivolous trial (Rakul Preet Singh V. Union of India, W.P. ( C ) 6568 of 2020).
Serve a legal notice through the Counsel at the office of media channel directing them to desist from holding any trial about the client.
An aggrieved person can also institute appropriate contempt proceedings against the alleged news channel under Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
The institution of media, no doubt, serves as a vigilance agency for the citizens of the Nation, but at the same time, the media should not overstep its boundaries mandated by law. Freedom of speech and expression has been granted equally to all the citizens and the media doesn’t own any privilege to injure or prejudice the interests of any other citizen. A person who has been a victim of media trial, even after the acquittal by the Court is labelled as a convict by the society thereby leading to loss of employment and status in the society which is a direct
Infringement of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. It is a high time that the Parliament should frame appropriate laws to regulate the unwarranted trials done by the media.
(2004) 4 SCC 158.
AIR 1962 SC 605 (630).
Bail Application No. 2386 of 2020.
Civil Application No. 9813 of 2011.
Criminal Appeal of 1393 of 2008.
Rakul Preet Singh V. Union of India, W.P. ( C ) 6568 of 2020.
S.L.P. (Criminal) Nos. 3119-3120 of 2014).
SLP (C ) 6731 of 2021.