The media plays an important role in shaping and moulding the opinion of society. It is regarded as one of the four pillars of democracy and has the power to completely alter the viewpoint through which people perceive various events. It acts as a watchdog for the government and the society and leads the defaulters into the light. It is not expressly mentioned in the Constitution but the Supreme Court on various occasions has specified that the freedom to speech and expression, under Article 19, includes freedom of press and media. The terms “media trial” or “trial by media” have gained popularity in the era of technology. The media by influencing the opinion of the people usually has an adverse impact on the fair trial.
The principles of criminal jurisprudence state that every suspect/accused is entitled to a fair trial and is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty by a competent court of law. It is contempt to interfere, prejudge, or prejudice a case till the judgement is passed. The media, however, in its quest for excessive coverage, transgresses its powers and publishes data that creates prejudice in the minds of judges, prosecutors, and the public at large. Freedom of expression cannot mean freedom to commit contempt of court.
In the rapidly changing socio-economic conditions of a country like India, the challenge before the courts is to strike a balance between the media’s freedom and the accused’s right to a fair trial. Article 19(1) of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression which also recognizes freedom of press and media as a fundamental right and Article 21, on the other hand, guarantees the accused, the fundamental right to a fair trial. The courts need to come up with better balancing measures to protect both these rights of equal standing.
The Law Commission Report-
The Law Commission to create a harmony between the two rights, in its 200th Report published on 31 August 2006, recommended various amendments to the Contempt of Courts Act to address the adverse effects of sensationalized news and accused victimization by the media on the administration of justice and measures of postponement of proceedings and further stated that such powers cannot be vested in sub-ordinate courts while the proceedings are active. It is because as per the Contempt of Courts act the sub-ordinate courts have no right to take action for contempt and can only make a reference to the High Court under section 15(2). It also stated that Article 19(2) of the constitution which permits certain reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, leaves out “administration of justice” but “interference with the administration of justice” is mentioned in the definition of ‘criminal contempt’ under Section 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Thus, if the media reporting interferes with the administration of justice, it can be held liable for contempt.
The report further recommended prohibiting the publication of anything that is pre-judged or prejudiced and can disrupt the course of proceedings and such restriction must prevail from the time of the arrest. The High Court is empowered to order the postponement of telecast or publication in criminal cases. The following publications were categorized as an obstruction to the administration of justice-
Publication concerning the character of the accused or previous conclusions
Publication of confessions
Publications commenting on the merit of the case
Photographs related to the case revealing the identity of the accused
Direct imputation of the accused’s innocence
Creating an atmosphere of prejudice
Criticism of witness
Premature publication of evidence
Publication of interviews with the witnesses
The fall on media-
In recent times, the media has fallen from grace. On various occasions, the media has conducted trials of the accused and passed a verdict even before the court passes its judgement. To sensationalize the reporting and to increase the commercial value or the TRP of the channel, the media goes over and beyond and starts naming and blaming the accused or the suspect which defeats the whole idea of a fair trial. The media which is known for generating a mob mentality, itself became the victim. The problem becomes more visible when the matter involves big names and celebrities.
The media has no sense of privacy. It brings to light every personal detail of the persons, most of which are not even related to the case. It is evident that the media has been given wide powers but it certainly does not mean that it has the right to misuse it.
In the most recent case of Rhea Chakroborty v. State of Bihar, 2020 (SSR murder case) the television media became the judge, jury, and executioner of the democracy. The unnatural death of Sushant Singh Rajput on 14th June 2020 became a sensational topic in every household during the pandemic. The news channels also got into some serious discussions while some indulged in investigative journalism. Some accused the Mumbai police to have passed off a homicidal death as a suicidal death, while some held SSR’s close acquaintance, Rhea Chakraborty guilty for orchestrating his death. Some news channels targeting the actress demanded her arrest while some even flashed that she was killed. The rigorous media trial led the NCB to make her arrest. After monthlong incarceration, the actress was finally granted bail as it was recorded that the material collected by NCB did not prima facie suggest that she committed any offence.
5 PILs were filed before the Bombay High Court from June 25- September 10 seeking multifarious reliefs however, matters concerning the unethical trial being conducted by the media remained common in all of them. The petitioners contended that the electronic media in violation of its rights are broadcasting unethical news disrupting the course of the investigation.
In re P.C. Sen, 1968 case an SLP was filed stating that a broadcast that had taken place on November 25, 1965, on the All-India Radio Station had obstructed in the course of justice as it had given out the details of the accused. The judge in the said case stated that anything that brings down the authority of the court or interferes with the proceeding of the court, amounts to contempt.
In the case of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr, 1973, a curfew was imposed in a small town of Andhra Pradesh. The validity of the curfew was challenged before the court. While a case was pending in the court of law, the ‘Deccan Chronicles” published all about the law of curfew along with its historical background and the details of the case. It was held that if a person publishing the news believes it to be true, in his/her capacity, shall be held for contempt as for establishing the truth before the judgement of the court.
In the case of Sushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration and Ors.) 1996 it was alleged that the accused had murdered his partner contrary to what the evidence projected. The media however started portraying the accused as the murderer and was able to influence the minds of the public even before the court had passed its judgement. The High Court held that the conviction can only be made based on facts and not because the media declared the accused as the murderer. The charges against the accused can also be filed only based on the evidence available and not based on how the media portrays the accused.
In Jesicca Lal Murder case one night at a very high-profile party with A list of industrialists, businessmen, and fashion tycoons, a 20-year-old, a party leader’s son shot the bar-maid, Jessica Lal for being refused to be re-served alcohol. On lack of evidence regarding the vehicle, the murder weapon, and the date, time, and place of the event the justice was delayed and debated. The media played a massive role in this case and it was believed that the media scooped evidence itself and took on places where the police left. The Supreme Court also gave appropriate credit to the media for bringing the wrongdoers to the light.
In the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case aka the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the media tried to glorify the case to its best. The media reported to an extent that it was proved that there were no witnesses to the incident still, yet the public was well aware of everything that had happened that night.
Media trials vs. Judiciary
There is no legal system that the media has been given the power to try a case. Rather the principle of “Presumption of innocence” is against the media’s right to freedom. Media trial pronounces the accused guilty or otherwise, long before the actual judgement of the court. This not only affects the reputation of the accused but also subverts the criminal justice system.
The Supreme court has expressed that the media and the judiciary are two distinct institutions working in different spheres and their functions do not overlap. Media functions majorly on the behest of the protection given under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution which provides the freedom of speech and expression. It should however be noted that no right, including the fundamental rights, is absolute under the Constitution and is subject to restrictions and regulations which must be kept in mind by the media while reporting. The media must not try and take over the task of administering justice and pronouncing judgements. Also, the judiciary should only interfere with the right of freedom of media in exceptional circumstances.
The judiciary is also not free from faults. Judges and judicial officers also being humans are bound to be subconsciously affected and influenced by the media trials. It is not hard to understand that where a trial is pending in the court of law, the potential judges or the investigating officers of the case are subjected to the same reportage and are bound to be influenced by the media. This not only takes away the right of the accused to a fair trial but also interferes with the administration of justice. Therefore, it becomes important to regulate the media while a trial is in process or pending.
It is well-established that it is important to impose some regulations on the media reportage, it must also be noted that the restrictions imposed must be reasonable and not anything that would curtain or limit the powers of the media by a significant amount. The right guaranteed under Article 19 must only be curtailed through the reasonable restrictions imposed under Article 19(2) and not go beyond its ambit.
The establishment of the Press Council of India has also played a significant role in regulating the content that goes out to the public. It prevents the publication of prejudiced content and anything that violates the regulation of the law comes under the ambit of contempt. Punishing the wrongdoers can go a long way in sending out the message and in preventing more media houses to indulge in unlawful activities.
Being a citizen of a democratic country, we have the right to be informed about the various issues and events unfolding in the various parts of our country. The responsibility to bring us all the news rests with the media and is also justified by the constitution. However, when the media transgresses its powers and right and creates prejudice in the minds of the viewers or the readers, it becomes unjustifiable. In the present scenario, it is evident that media trials entail the risk of subverting the administration of justice and have a more negative impact than positive. The media must focus more on factual narrations as pre-disposed notions of media towards guilt or innocence clearly shows an overreach on its part. The media cannot be allowed to go beyond its powers to take over the role of the judiciary of administering justice, under the garb of freedom of speech and expression. However, in the interest of democracy, a self-regulated and self-disciplined media is better than the one controlled and regulated by the court and the state.
By Shivani Agrawal