Do Media Trials Serve Any Purpose?

 INTRODUCTION


Media is a form of communication, which includes publishing, broadcasting and the internet. The other ways through which the communication can be transmitted to the society are radio, television, newspaper, etc. But in this contemporary world media has developed over time and made the dissemination of information easy.


Media imparts a very vital role in Indian democracy and hence it is called the ‘fourth pillar’ of the democracy. It generates awareness regarding the other three pillars namely Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. It even keeps the people informed about all the social, political and economic activities prevailing in our country.


It is expected from the media to provide impartial and unbiased news as it plays a vital role in shaping the opinions of the society and is competent in changing the whole viewpoint through which people perceive various events. Therefore, it is the primary duty of media to simply put out every minute detail rather than reaching any conclusion about any matter on their own.



BRIEF HISTORY OF MEDIA TRIAL


History of strong media influence on the legal procedure goes back to the emergency of the printing press.


The first celebrity in the 20th century to be tried by media was Roscoe Arbuckle who was acquitted by the courts but due to media trial and media coverage lost his career and reputation. In the midst of media trials the true essence of justice gets lost and the focus tends to shift on the promotion of the media coverage in the public mind.



Another remarkable case is the trial of O.J. Simpson, 1995, where the media played well in promoting the case and creating an opinion in the mind of the viewers much before the court’s order.


In the case of Stephen Downing, 2002, in Derbyshire, through a simple campaign, a local newspaper editor reopened the case and was successful in releasing the convict after twenty-seven years of his conviction.


Therefore, it can be easily said that the media acts as a bridge between the Judiciary and the public as it covers all sort of good and bad aspects creating an impact on the life of an accused.



WHAT IS MEDIA TRIAL


The main component of media trials is portrayal of all the events that have to be kept as secret and then act as a helping hand in shaping the opinion in the mind of the viewers. The media acts as a watchdog and provides us with a common platform where the people can know about all the things happening in the society. Thus, this only leads the whole world towards being biased against one community or a single person. In many cases Media trials give an unfair portrayal of the accused and destroy the career of many people, merely by the fact that they were accused, even though they have not yet been proven guilty by the court of law. 


EVOLUTION OF MEDIA AND FREEDOM OF PRESS IN INDIA



Indian Constitution recognizes as well as protects the freedom of media under Art. 19(1)(a) which is Right to freedom of speech. Indian media, from being completely operated by the State to setting up by corporate who are largely seen as professionals, is generally neutral in its coverage of the events and has passed through many phases.


The proficiency of media has improved to a great extent after liberalization. In the late 90’s many international news agencies such as CNN, Bloomberg, TV 18 network and BBC came in Indian media market and increased the competitiveness in the segment which was earlier covered only by Doordarshan. This was decided by the apex court in the case of Secretary, Ministry of I & B v. Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB)[1] that government has no monopoly on electronic media and a citizen, under Art. 19(1)(a) has full right to telecast and broadcast to the viewers or the listener through electronic media television and radio any significant happening or event taking place across the globe.


If the government wants to impose any restriction it can be only levied on the grounds specified in Clause 2 of Article 19. Prasar Bharti, an independent governing board which was established as an autonomous authority for the purpose of regulation of Indian media. After the inception of Prasar Bharti media was blessed with a lot of freedom[2]. It was observed in Indian Express Newspaper case by the Supreme Court that - The expression “freedom of the press” has not been used in Article 19 but is comprehended in Article 19(1) (a).



‘Freedom of press’ explicitly means freedom from interference from authority which may have the effect of interference with the content and circulation of the news simultaneously there cannot be any interference in the name of ‘public interest’ as well.  Freedom of press is the soul of social and political communication. These reasons make it mandatory for the Judiciary to uphold the validity of freedom of press and invalidate all laws and administrative actions which interfere with it.[3]”


There exists a neck to neck competition in the field of Mass Media. The primary role of mass media is to address economic considerations, which are perfectly obtained through advertisement. Based on the channel’s Television Rating Points (TRPs) advertisements are aired.


Every media house in order to sustain in the competition needs to telecast relevant news for the public at large. Majority of media campaigns are positive and display its role mainly in investigative journalism, but the cases which are pending in Courts, acceptability of media trial is doubtful.



In the case of R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu[4], the Supreme Court of India has clearly stated that freedom of the press extends to engaging in unoccupied debate about the involvement of public figures in public issues and related events. But it should be taken into consideration that there should be a proper balance between freedom of the press and the right to privacy and in case any defamation has been performed it must be in the terms of the democratic way of life laid down in the Constitution.


In the very famous case of Delhi gang rape, in 2012 popularly known as ‘Nirbhaya case’ the media acted as an activist and reported cases of sexual offence and insensitively without any diligence.[5]


The recent death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput is another instance in which the media is trying to establish self-proclaimed justice system by labelling and making unsubstantiated allegations on Rhea Chakraborty. Due to public rage and anger about the sudden dismissal of one of the shinning stars of Bollywood, the media in this case is trying to narrate the story in a manner so as to induce the public to believe the complicity of the person in order to gain maximum TRP. The Press Council of India expressly said that “The media is advised to refrain from giving excessive publicity to the victim, witnesses, suspects and accused as it will amount to invasion of their privacy rights”.


Although Rhea Chakraborty was alleged for driving Sushant Singh Rajput to commit suicide and cheating on him financially, but according to presumption of innocence she cannot be held liable until the Court decides so. On 8th September 2020 she was arrested by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) under various sections of NDPS, of which the full coverage was shown by different media house.


The media press stands on no higher value than any other citizen and cannot claim any privilege (unless conferred specifically by law), as such, as distinct from those of any other citizen. Therefore, the press cannot be subjected to any special restrictions which could not be imposed on any citizen of the country (India).


FAIR TRIAL COMPARED TO MEDIA TRIAL


The right to get justice and fair trial is the integral part under Right to life and personal liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Withstanding Article 21, ‘Right to Fair Trial’ is recognized as a basic theory of justice in India. Important provisions which aims at protecting this right are contained under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 (Contempt Jurisdiction-Power of Supreme Court and High Court to punish for Contempt of itself respectively) of the Constitution of India.


One of particular concern to the media trial is the restrictions which are imposed on the publication of issues relating to the case pending before a Court. A journalist therefore may be liable for the contempt of Court if he publishes anything which might be only a preformed opinion about the issue which will hamper the purpose of ‘fair trial’ whether the proceeding is a criminal or civil proceeding.[6]


If the media house publishes any prejudicial matter concerning the character of accused, publication of confessions, publications which comment or reflect upon the merits of the case, photographs, police activities, imputation of innocence, creating an atmosphere of prejudice, criticism of witnesses, the Indian criminal justice system, it is said that media has exceeded its rights.


In the case of Zahira Habibullah Sheikh v. State of Gujarat[7], the Supreme Court explained that a “fair trial would mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and atmosphere of judicial calm. Fair trial means a trial in which bias or prejudice for or against the accused, the witnesses, or the cause which is being tried is eliminated.”


Right to a fair trial is right of every person residing within the territory of India under Articles 14 and 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution. With respect to Article 19(2), this right can be limited by law only in the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.


MEDIA TRIAL AND THE RIGHT TO BE REPRESENTED


In many cases if a person is accused through media trials the lawyers prefer not to take up the cases of accused. This infringes the rights of defendant to be represented by a lawyer of his choice before the Court. This is how media trial goes against the principles of natural justice. When renowned lawyer Ram Jethmalani decided to defend Manu Sharma, a prime accused in the case of Jessica Lal murder case[8], he faced many societal objections. In the other case where Kamini Jaiswal, who represented SAR Geelani, a Delhi University professor who was accused of the Parliament attack 2001, was called “an anti- national”[9]. In the similarly manner Prashant Bhushan who was the counsel for Yakub Menon was also opposed by the public at large.


Due to public reaction, opinions and outrage, the lawyer’s security comes in danger due to which they are unable to fulfill their ethical duty to provide legal aid in criminal matters. Therefore, it can be easily said that media trial affects the principle of natural justice.


IS MEDIA TRIAL A CONTEMPT OF COURT?


The media trial falls within the ambit of the contempt of court and needs to be punished. The right to a fair trial should not be influenced and affected by any sort of publications whether in news headlines, in the newspaper or aired on the radio. But it happens mostly that the leading and popular news channels decide to go against the ethical code. Under such circumstances the career of the accused is destroyed even before his guilt is proven in the court of law. The news channels portray the accused as an evil person during the prime time when all the viewers are generally geared in front of their television. It is therefore very important to note that the idea of democracy is fair play and to display everything without any ambiguity otherwise the essence of democracy is put at stake. So, if any attempt is made to sabotage any pillars of democracy, by one it must be held as contempt.[10]


In Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr., it was observed that “…When litigation is pending before a Court, no one shall comment on it in such a way there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the action, as for instance by influence on the Judge, the witnesses or by prejudicing mankind in general against a party to the cause. Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a contempt of Court if he prejudices the truth before it is ascertained in the proceedings.”[11]


In Sushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration) and Ors. it was held by the Delhi High Court that “Conviction, if any, would be based not on media’s report but what facts are placed on record. Judge dealing with the case is supposed to be neutral. Now if what petitioner contends regarding denial of fair trial because of these news items is accepted it would cause aspiration on the Judge being not neutral. Press report or no reports, the charge to be framed has to be based on the basis of the material available on record... The Trial Court has rightly observed that after the charge sheet has been filed, if the Press revealed the contents of the charge sheet it by itself by no stretch of imagination amounts to interference in the administration of justice.”[12]


IMMUNITY UNDER THE CONTEMPT OF COURT ACT, 1971


The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, provides immunity to the publications under free trials against contempt proceedings. But if any publication interferes, obstructs or tends to obstruct any proceeding of justice whether it is civil or criminal, constitutes the contempt of court. The contempt of court is so termed because some of the acts which are published before the verdict given by the court may mislead the public and hamper the rights of the accused to get a fair trial. Any such kind of publications may be based on his previous convictions or the confession he forcefully made in front of the police or merely character assassination of the accused.


In the case of Aarushi Talwar’s Murder, 2013, the media had professed who was guilty and who was not even before the actual trial had begun. As the general public got to know her own parents were the cause of her death, it led to mass protests and made the public go into hysterics.[13] But the fact can’t be ignored that media press has got immunity even though the media had gone berserk in this case.


CONCLUSION- MEDIA TRIAL: A BOON OR A CURSE


India is blessed with rich tradition of fiercely independent journalism. We are aware of the fact, that most of the big scams are busted by the press, and then followed up by the law enforcers. The heftily paid journalist is credited for extracting that information which looked inaccessible for the top vigilance teams of the country but that is how Sushant Singh Rajput’s case hit the headlines. That is how we found out Rhea Chakraborty was engaged in drug trafficking.


The media has even helped the public in prejudicing our political juncture as well. Now we know that the Courts come under the media’s microscope, it is most likely that they will remain there forever. A positive impact that spurred out by the media is that now more Indians are aware of their constitutional rights than ever before.


The media strongly feels bitter about this sub judice rule and complain that Courts during the course of a hearing tend to interpret the sub judice rule. However, there is an urgent need to liberalize the sub judice rule, applying it only in important cases that will likely influence the trial and not to any act that might have the remote possibility of influencing it. Another main constraint on stings and trials by media is the public interest. If public interest is missing and either self or manipulative interests surface, the media loses its ground and invites the rage of the court.

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