Utkarshani Srivastava, a 2nd year student of Hidayatullah National Law University, critically analyzes the recent trend of media trial and it’s various repercussions.
Media- referred to as the fourth estate in our democracy, meaning that it is as important as the other three organs of the state i.e. Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. Participative media is contemplated as the ‘cornerstone’ of our democracy. It is the pillar of a democratic setup, as, through the medium of mass media, ideas across societies are communicated; these ideas are the basis of participation and debate. Media acts as a facilitator and also an expediter on numerous matters including those affecting the collective conscience of the society.
Reincarnated as public court, media forms public opinion by separately starting investigations. It’s obvious that to run the democracy very smoothly, a free and healthy media functionary is required. But keeping in to the demand of current situation, media is significantly involved when justice is totally denied or delayed. Though media helps in social and political changes but sometimes it’s also seen that media is inclined into the money making business. That is when media tends to incline towards increasing their TRP to earn more money by hosting media trials and declaring the judgment on the basis of their investigation. This article delves into the increased penetration of media in trials, resulting in contempt of court by hindering the right to fair trial and sometimes even influencing the paths of the trials and prejudicing the trials. The author has also suggested a few reforms to set a limit to the exploitation of the freedom of expression given to the media.
On its inception, media was bestowed with a lot of freedom so that unbiased, thorough and fair reporting could be done on all the matters. Though there is no explicit guarantee of freedom related to media in part III of the constitution, but this freedom is implied in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India that guarantees “freedom of speech and expression”. Whereas Article 19 (2) sets out the grounds on which limits can be imposed upon the “freedom of expression”. Those limit flow from the right to privacy, right to reputation, the law of “contempt of court” etc. Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. It is the primary duty of the court to uphold the freedom of press and invalidate all laws and administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate.
But to grab the attention of the viewers and maintain a high TRP in this competitive industry, media reports are often turning to distortion of facts and sensationalisation. The problem finds its worst manifestation when the media extensively covers sub-judice matters by publishing information and opinions that are clearly prejudicial to the interests of the parties involved in litigation pending before the Courts. The media, in reporting of the murder of Aarushi Talwar, forestalled the court and reported that her father Dr. Rajesh Talwar, and mother Nupur Talwar were involved in her murder, it was later declared by the CBI that Dr. Rajesh Talwar and Nupur Talwar were not the killers.
In recent times there have been numerous instances where the media has conducted trial of an accused and has passed the verdict even before the courts have passed their judgment. As currently happening in the case of late Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput, though the CBI is investigating the case, news-anchors are conducting their own parallel proceedings from the comfort of their studios and impeding a fair trial while making mockery of the criminal justice system, which rests on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Something that was started to show to the public at large the truth about cases, has now become a practice interfering dangerously with the justice delivery system. This highlights the enormous need of what is called ‘responsible journalism’.
RIGHT TO FREE TRIAL
The right to get a fair trial is a fundamental right according to the Indian Constitutions. “Fair trial” includes fair and proper opportunities allowed by law to prove oneself innocent. As enshrined in article 21 of the constitution of India, right to fair trial is a part of life and personal liberty. A fair trial requires bias or discrimination to be removed for or against the accused, the witnesses or the proceeding of the case. But due to the cutthroat competition in the Media industry, media houses are driven to stay relevant by taking up cases in their hand. When these media houses take up cases in their hands they use such language when reporting a problem and prejudices the public as a result of the characterization of the accused it amounts to undue interference with the administration of justice and hence dodges the principle of innocence until proven guilty. But no situation must arise that the publicity attached to such cases dilutes the essentials of a fair trial and the basic principles of jurisprudence including thepresumption of innocence of the accused unless found guilty at the end of the trial”, hence, it is necessary to create a just balance between the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in Article 19(1)(a) and the due process of criminal justice required for a fair criminal trial, as part of the administration of justice.
CONTEMPT OF COURTS
Under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, any publication that interferes, scandalises or prejudices any proceeding and the course of justice, which is actually a pending or ongoing proceeding constitutes the contempt of court. Though section 5 of the act has a provision where a fair criticism of judicial act would not amount to contempt, and section 4 of the act states that a fair and accurate report of judicial proceeding would not amount to contempt, but such defence can only be used when a case is heard, finally decided and the report so published is fair and accurate. Hence media trials may fall under the ambit of contempt of court because these agencies do not limit their publishings to exact and accurate news but cross their boundaries by not only showcasing the distorted facts of the case but also insensitively and without any due diligence announcing their own verdict before the judiciary to gain TRP. As Justice Shah stated “Any act that is done or published to bring any Judge or the court to the ambit of contempt or which tries to bring down the authority of the court or anything that tries to interfere with the proceedings of the law are going to be termed as contempt of court.” Hence, such acts must be punished under criminal contempt of court which interfere, prejudice or/and scandalise the proceedings.
It is agreed that justice delivery system in our country is slack and media coverage expedites the process. But, it is humbly submitted that the expected role of news reports is to bring matters in the view of society and not to pass judgment on guilt or innocence of persons. As the Chief Justice of India has remarked, “Freedom of press means people’s right to know the correct news”, but he admitted that newspapers cannot be read like an official gazette and may have a tinge of “sensationalism, entertainment and anxiety”.
DEMAND FOR RECTIFICATIONS
Media should follow a line of control during public trials. It should emphasize on the truth and should help the court to project the right verdict for justice. The Malpractice of portraying unethical issues in media is not a matter to be neglected.
Instead of unduly debating on media regulation, it is more significant for the nation to focus on media literacy to develop at all levels including media persons and common people. This coupled with enhanced quality of general education and steps to improve journalism education in the country, will make a self-regulatory mechanism internal to the media, even as it explores new, but sensible form of investigative journalism. Apart from this a strong monitoring procedure with empowered monitoring committee is also the need of the hour and monitoring must be on such implementation and execution of law in proper way. Though Press Council of India was established to preserve the freedom of the Press and to maintain and improve the standard of newspapers and news agencies in India but it is no more than a ‘toothless tiger’. It has no power other than that of censuring and admonition. The PCI is in dire need of being legally overhauled. Firstly, the ambit of the PCI must be increased to regulating the electronic media as well. Secondly it must be given the power to levy fines, as mere censoring won’t deter media outlets to behave responsibly and hence it is necessary to use the rod. Thirdly, as practiced by the Medical Council of India and Bar Council of India, the process of licensing journalist must be initiated, and PCI must be given a free hand in dealing with the journalists. By doing so, proper journalistic conduct would be maintained when erring journalists would have their licenses confiscated.
Media is one of the most important element for a democracy to function, that works for greater interest of society but at the same time the legal processes must not be impeded by the media coverage of a matter. Mandatory steps are the need of the hour to prevent media trials from eroding the civil rights of the citizens, whereby media has clearer definition of their rights and duties and the courts are given power to punish those who blatantly disregard them.
 Anamika Ray and Ankuran Dutta, “Media Glare or Media Trial Ethical Dilemma between two Estates of India Democracy”, (2015) 5 Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies (Sep 16, 2020, 2:56 pm) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274633662_Media_Glare_or_Media_Trial_Ethical_Dilemma_between_two_Estates_of _India_Democracy.
 Mistrial by Media, The Indian Express, October 14 2017.
 Om Prakash, Right to Privacy in Sting Operations of Media, O.R 57, May 2013
 Zahira Habibullah Sheikh V. State of Gujarat and Ors, 4, SCC 158 (Guj: 2004).
 Chandra Pradhan v. Union of India, AIR 2814 (SC: 1997).
 AIR 1821(SC:1970).
Media must not run parallel trials: CJI, The Times of India, October 20, 2008.
IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.