Media Trials

Introduction

Though there is no specific definition in any law, ‘trial by media’ may be defined as adjudication by the media, of cases, either before, during, or after the verdict of the court. Media is also called the fourth pillar of democracy and plays a vital role in molding the opinion of the public.

Free media is a prerequisite to democracy but the same is enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. It is also subject to the restrictions provided in that regard. Media has the power to influence the audience. It has the power that, in fact, it can change governments! Media trial has become a trend, the main reason being to increase the channel’s circulation and TRP. This article mainly deals with how trials by media impact and influence the masses.

Media Trial v. Freedom of Speech and Expression

One of the fundamental rights, Article 19 of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression. It doesn’t expressly provide for the freedom of press, but the same may be implied to be a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a).[1] Media is responsible for gathering and circulating true information and thus, several moral customs are vital to an appropriate working of journalists and media practitioners. While gathering and circulating any kind of information, it’s the duty of the media to be attentive against misleadings and distorted information. In certain cases, the Supreme Court has stated the trial by media are instances that may lead to the miscarriage of justice. Therefore, the media need to be accountable.

Media Trial v. Fair Trial

Right to have a fair trial is available to every person. It is an absolute right provided to all vide Articles 14,19,20,21 and 22 of the Constitution. But, trial by media has created a problem between freedom of press and the right to a fair trial. Media trials, many a time, contribute to miscarriage of justice. But there are provisions that aim at safeguarding the right of fair trial such as under the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution. Thus, when any such thing is published which might act as a hindrance in a fair trial, then journalists may be liable for contempt.

Also, media trials pressurize the lawyers not to take up certain cases and may incite negative public opinion with regards to the same. But, if we look at the other side, some famous cases like Priyadarshini Mattoo case, Jessica Lall case, etc. would have gone unpunished without media intervention. However, in the present scenario, the media is having a negative impact more on the masses than a positive impact and is affecting trials in the court. Justice Y.K Sabharwal had quoted once that media trials have been widely condemned by the Judicial fraternity in India on the ground that judges are affected by such treatment of cases by the media; judges are confused and under pressure, because the media has already given a verdict.

Media, in various instances, has been accused of conducting trials and passing their verdict even before the court did, of which such few instances shall be discussed later in this article. 

In Y.V Hanumantha Rao v. K.R Pattabhiram & Anr[2], it was observed that when litigation is pending before a court, no one shall comment in such a way that there is real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial. Parties to a case have the right to fair trial that must be uninfluenced by any dictations.

Does Trial by Media amount to Contempt of Court?

Under the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, contempt refers to the offense of showing disrespect to the dignity or authority of a court. It is divided into civil contempt and criminal contempt. Civil contempt is willful disobedience of an order of any court while criminal contempt[3] includes act or publication which-

    1. Scandalizes the court; or
    2. Prejudices any judicial proceedings; or
    3. Interferes with the administration of justice.

Here, ‘scandalizes the court’ refers to any statements or publication that effect undermining public confidence in the judiciary. As per the definition of contempt, the trial by media surely is contempt because it is against the ethical code of contempt. Their publications, statements, the way they portray an accused already guilty before the court does so, influence the masses, and justice is affected. It also violates the principle of fair trial.

Law Commission of India’s 200th Report

The Law Commission, in its 200th Report, recommended the introduction of law so as to debar the media from covering and reporting things, from the time of arrest till the investigation and trial is complete, that may be prejudicial to the rights of the accused.

It further recommended for the training of the journalists in aspects of law relating to Article 19(1)(a) and restrictions under article 19(2), contempt, human rights, defamation, etc, and also to include these in diploma, degree courses on journalism.

Impact of Trial by Media

No doubt the media acts as a watchdog and always brings to the masses a platform where the people can get to know about the things that are happening in our society. But, the trend is very much evident that the media is less doing the acts of journalism and rather have started portraying itself as any public court which is collecting evidence and deciding a person’s guilt through its own processes. The impact of this trial is that it has been successful in portraying events that are supposed to be kept a secret. It has been interfering in the investigations in such a way that it, many times, has had a negative impact on the delivery of justice.

In the R.K Anand case[4], the court said that the media should perform acts of journalism and it should not act as any special agency for the courts.

As mentioned, everything has some pros and cons and so do media trials. The following are its impacts:

Effect on the Accused:

  • In many cases, like murder case of Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo case, etc media trial has led to the punishment of the accused when the country felt that injustice was done because of their acquittal.
  • On the other side, in cases like the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the death case of the actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, etc, the accused, though have not been proved guilty yet, media trial causes them to live under intense public scrutiny and judgment.

Effect on the Witness:

  • During trial by media, the identities of the witnesses might get disclosed. This may cause pressure on the witnesses from the both sides, i.e., from the sides of the victim and accused and witnesses then tend to withdraw their testimony.
  • Undue pressure on the witnesses, especially in light of negative public opinions.

Effect on the Public:

  • Educates the public if the approach is positive and the information provided is real.
  • Helps in nation-building.
  • If the information provided is not real and only for the sake of TRP and increasing circulation, then it might and does severely affect the public in forming an opinion. 
  • It also rallies the public many a time for the proper cause to fight for justice.

Instances of Media Trial

Following are a few instances in India that show the two sides of media trial:

Priyadarshini Mattoo Case 

Priyadarshini Mattoo was a law student, who had various complaints lodged against the accused for harassment, stalking, and intimidation. On the day of her murder, when she was alone at her residence, the accused came to her house and the security guard, afterwards found her dead and an FIR was lodged. Later, the case was transferred to the CBI. The trial court had acquitted the accused on the ground of lack of evidence and also that the DNA report was fabricated. On appeal in the Delhi High Court by the CBI, in October, 2006, the court overturned the trial court’s verdict. The accused filed an appeal in the Supreme Court in 2007 and in 2010, the court upheld the conviction, however, reducing the punishment from death penalty to life imprisonment.

In this whole process, the role of media was that, after the accused was acquitted by the trial court in 1999, and the Sessions Judge’s remark that he knew that the accused was guilty but had to acquit due to lack of evidence, there was a public outcry and media campaign against the decision and this led to an appeal in the High Court. [5]

Jessica Lall Murder Case

Jessica Lall, at a party in a restaurant in South Delhi, was shot dead in April 1999. Charge sheet was filed and the Sessions Court framed charges for murder against nine of them but discharged one of the accused, Amit Jhingan. In March 2006, the trial court acquitted all of them on the ground of lack of evidence. An appeal was filed by the Delhi police in the High Court. In December 2006, the High Court convicted Manu Sharma, Vikas Yadav and Amardeep Singh Gill(Tony) and not others. The main convict was awarded life imprisonment and sentenced the co-convicts to four years prison term.

Due to public campaigns and the media against the verdict of the trial court, an appeal was filed before the Delhi High Court convicted and then the verdict of the trial court was reversed and the accused got convicted. The Supreme Court also approved the sentence and accepted that there had been one element of ‘media trial’. The top court had also said that there is a danger of serious risk of prejudice if the media continue to exercise unrestricted and unregulated freedom! [6]

Uma Khurana Case

Uma Khurana, a Mathematics teacher in Delhi, became a victim of mob lynching after a sting operation that alleged that she was a part of a prostitution racket and also involved her students into it. She was suspended in 2006 from the Government Senior Secondary School on grounds of alleged misconduct and later, was transferred to a school in Daryaganj on an appeal for revocation of her suspension.

The Crime branch had alleged in the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate that the reporter Prakash Singh, in a criminal conspiracy with a businessman Virendra Arora in order to settle their personal scores, carried out the fake sting operation. After the said operation, it resulted in violence outside her school and she was suspended and terminated from the service and was lynched by the angry mob. No evidence against her led to her acquittal and the reporter and the businessman were charge-sheeted under various sections like 120B, 420, etc of the IPC. [7]

Aarushi Talwar Murder Case

The infamous unsolved double murder case of Noida that took place in May 2008 received heavy media coverage. After the ex-servant of the family was ruled out, the prime suspects were Aarushi’s parents. The ground of suspicion was that Aarushi’s father might have found them (Aarushi and their murdered servant Hemraj) in an objectionable position or maybe Hemraj was blackmailing Mr. Talwar with his alleged extramarital affair and a confrontation with Aarushi. In 2009, the other team of CBI, named Mr. Talwar as the sole suspect but was not charged due to lack of evidence. A special CBI court, after rejecting CBI’s claim, had ordered proceedings against the Talwars and they were convicted. The Talwars challenged the decision in Allahabad High Court and in October 2017, they were acquitted. Again, the decision was challenged by the CBI. Even today, the case remains unsolved.[8]

In this case, trial by media was criticized by many. When the suspect Hemraj’s body was discovered, the case provided material to the media which resulted in yellow journalism. It is argued by the critics that this alleged tabloid journalism by the media and also with missteps by the police had definitely prejudiced the course of justice. Even the Supreme Court, in July 2008, asked the media to be careful with their coverage and abstain from making any kind of baseless allegation and doubting the characters of Mr. Talwar and also of Aarushi. Media was criticized for lack of sensitivity and decorum.

Sushant Singh Rajput Suicide Case

Everyone is well versed with the ongoing investigation in the death case of a Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. It has opened a debate on the role of media in cases that are under investigation and trial being pending. The media is continuously broadcasting defamatory materials, half-truths against the accused, and interfering with the fair trial of the accused. This case has again raised issues for India’s democracy. It has exposed the distortions that exist in each and every institution, especially in the media. The trial by media has allowed the politicization of what should have been a straight forward investigation. Even a petition was filed in the Bombay High Court regarding media trials. Media, in getting TRP increased, has forgotten that they are supposed to maintain some sensitivity, taste, decorum while covering any news. 

JUDICIAL CONFESSION AND ITS RELEVANCY

In Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Ltd. v. SEBI,[9] the bench had pronounced the concept of postponement of publication or publicity in the cases that have a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice or to the fairness of a trial. Though it was rarely applied.

Ineffective Legal Norms

Before the impact of globalization was felt, the media was fully under the control of the government. Presently, many Acts regulate the media, including-

  1. The Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867;
  2. The Newspaper (Prices and Pages) Act, 1956;
  3. The Press Council Act, 1978; etc.

Under the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, though any publications which interfere with or that obstruct the course of justice, whether the proceedings is civil or criminal in nature and is not yet decided but is pending[10] in a court, are sheltered against any contempt proceedings even if such acts might affect the right of fair trial of the accused. For example, in Aarushi murder case, media reports that were speculating and pointing fingers even when arrests were not made, it was granted immunity under this Act, even though it pose threat to the administration of justice.

Legislative interference is required here. It may be done by reframing and expanding the definition of ‘pending’ given under this Act.

The next Act is the Press Council Act,1978, under which the council is empowered to censure. On any complaint of misconduct by any news agency, the council can warn, admonish, or censure the newspaper[11]. The issue here is that the council may take action only after anything as such has been already published and even the punishment is not harsh and thus, may not be much effective in preventing such publications.

In the case of Ajay Goswami v. Union of India[12], such shortcomings were highlighted:

  1. Already stated above the shortcomings of Section 14;
  2. The Act doesn’t apply to electronic media. Electronic media is self-regulated and has only advisory bodies and guidelines by such bodies are mere for advising;
  3. Council has the authority only to direct but cannot further ensure if it has been complied with or not.

Conclusion

The intervention of the media in a case that is under trial has become a normal affair in our society. Media has played a vital role in getting the accused punished in various cases but the fact that trial by media is a contempt of court cannot be ignored. There are some reasons behind it being contempt, like it affects the audience, and makes them form an opinion according to what is being published, broadcasted by the media. This affects the decision making of the judge and then the chances are that the conviction may go wrong sometimes. In order to stop this, proper and unambiguous regulating laws should be introduced and especially for broadcasting news agencies. Also, we as the audience need to encourage such media agencies that broadcast, publish, and circulate true information, give our constructive criticism so that they can improve. Thus, it is pertinent to look at its professionalism and ethics.

References

[1] Printers (Mysore) Ltd. v. CTO (1994) 2 SCC 4 34.

[2] Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram & Anr. AIR 1975 AP 30.

[3] The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, s. 2(c).

[4] R.K. Anand v. Registrar (2009) 8 SCC 106.

[5] Santosh Kumar Singh v. State through CBI (2010)9 SCC 747.

[6] Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi) (2010) 6 SCC 1.

[7] Court On Its Own Motion v. State 146 (2008) DLT429.

[8] The State of U.P. through the CBI v. Rajesh Talwar & Anr. Cri Appeal no. 477/2012.

[9] Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Ltd. v. SEBI (2012) 154 (SC).

[10] The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, s. 3, Explanation (a)(B).

[11] The Press Council Act, 1978, s.14(1).

[12] Ajay Goswami v. Union of India Civil Writ Petition no.84/2005.

BY- Ku Richa Singh | Law College Dehradun, Uttaranchal University

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