While a lot has been said recently about the manner in which the media has conducted trials itself even before the Courts stepped in the case, it becomes important to take a look into the constitutionality of such trials. For a democracy to work efficiently, an active and vigilant press is essential. Media, as the fourth pillar of democracy, serves an important function of serving the people by making them aware of the various happenings in the country and in the world. Not only is circulating information the only function of the media, but an equally crucial function is bringing correct and reliable information in front of the people to help them in making an informed choice. While freedom of the press is a valuable and sacred right enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, it does not give arbitrary power to the media to accuse or defame someone in the name of free press.
RECENT INSTANCES OF MEDIA TRIALS
Trial by media is not something which has come into focus now, it has been in the picture for a long time. The media has been active in accusing the parents and the servant in the Aarushi Talwar murder case, in manipulating public opinion by falsely charging those under investigation in the Bhima-Koregaon case and in blindly accusing Rhea Chakraborty in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. It is pathetic to see how she was dragged into the case and made the prime accused of his death without any evidences to substantiate the same by the media, which made everybody think she is a witch, who took control of the talented and hardworking guy, exploited him, fed him drugs and took all his money away.(1) There were news channels blatantly declaring her as a murderer with shameless headlines like “sushant par rhea ka kala jadu”, showing personal chats between her and Sushant and even chats between her and some other people and in fact twisting them in a way to show that she was the perfect villain in the case.
Not only this, with utter disregard to other highly important issues which the country faces including the coronavirus pandemic and the India-China border dispute, all the limelight was given to defaming Rhea, which also led to widespread criticism of the actor in social media and complete destruction of her reputation. (2)
Rebuking such kind of reporting, the Bombay High Court came down heavily on some channels and asked if infringing on a person’s rights can be qualified as ‘investigative journalism’. The Court even questioned the need of judges, if the media is competent in itself to declare someone as ‘guilty’ and prosecute him. The Court emphasized on a line to be drawn between media reporting and the etiquettes which need to be maintained while doing so. (3)
CONSTITUTIONALITY OF MEDIA TRIALS
Quoting a statement of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, “The press is another way of stating an individual or a citizen. The press has no special rights which are not to be given or which are not to be exercised by the citizen in his individual capacity. The editor of a press or a manager is all citizens and when they choose to write in a newspaper, they are merely exercising their right of expression.” First Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru also said, “I should rather have a completely free press, with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated press.” (4)
While the importance of a free press cannot be denied in a democracy, the question is to what extent? Not at all denying the importance of a free press, it is equally necessary to keep in mind that the freedom of speech and expression as the Constitution guarantees, comes with reasonable restrictions and one such being contempt of court. Free speech can be regulated if it obstructs the administration of justice or if it prejudices or interferes with the due course of any judicial proceeding, which is termed as contempt of court. The Constitution gives the right of a fair trial to every accused, along with the right to be heard and the right to be held innocent until proven guilty. The trials conducted by the media before the crime is proven against the person accused, tend to sabotage court proceedings as well as the reputation of the accused person. They influence public perspective and act as an obstruction to a fair trial thus, impairing the impartiality of the court of justice. (5)
The Supreme Court, in an attempt to discourage the practice of media trial, has observed in the case of Saibal Kumar v B. K. Sen that, “No doubt, it would be mischievous for a newspaper to systematically conduct an independent investigation into a crime for which a man has been arrested and to publish the result of the investigation. The basis for this view is that such action on the part of the newspaper tends to interfere with the court of justice, whether the investigation tends to prejudice the accused or the prosecution.”
The media has a huge role to play in shaping public opinion and the coverage of the same news and pointing to the same person makes even the non-believers believe what the media asserts. At times, media trials can be so powerful that the accused do not get a lawyer to represent them in a court of law, which goes against the very principles of the Constitution providing for the right to equality, the right to life and personal liberty and other rights of an arrested person. The media trial in the Jessica Lal murder case, shows how difficult it becomes, even for a senior advocate like Ram Jethmalani, to defend an accused who has been already declared as the murderer by the media and is eventually accepted by the public too.
Moreover, media trials go beyond the violation of human rights. It shifts the focus of the people and the country altogether from other important issues of the country which need light to be shed upon. The attempt of the news channels to increase TRP (Television Rating Point) and viewership is so much so that they use every unethical means to make their channels popular, even if it costs neglect of several other significant matters. In addition to that, illegally obtained evidences by the media (often by investigative agencies such as the NCB in Sushant case and the UP Police in the Hathras case) lead to dissemination of fake information and rumors among the public. It is, however, an irony that in a country where courts often acquit criminals on the ground of ‘lack of evidence’, the media is often seen conducting trials and alleging that it has “evidence” to back it up. (6)
Furthermore, the Press Council of India has also reminded the media to adhere to the Norms of Journalism Conduct while reporting a case under investigation. The Council has observed that reporting of the alleged suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput violates the Norms of Journalism Conduct and has advised media outlets not to carry out their own ‘parallel trials’. The Council added that the media should refrain from infringing the privacy of the victim, the witnesses, the accused and the suspects and not give excessive publicity to the case. (7)
With the growing instances of media trials, we need to understand the extent to which freedom regarding speech and expression applies. Freedom to express one’s views does not mean impairing the rights of other people and when it is the question of someone’s life, it is even more important to practice one’s freedom cautiously. Moreover, the media has to take the responsibility. News channels and newspapers need to understand that sensationalizing a case is not their job. Their job is to make sure that true information reaches the public. Media trials not just delay justice but also derail it by turning a tragedy to a Hindi film drama. Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility and the media should take the accountability that it withholds peace and harmony and not animosity and ill-will among the public because of some fake piece of information that it reports, whether it is on social, economic, religious or even sexual grounds. What happened with Rhea Chakraborty shows the level of misogyny which still surrounds us and shows to what extent the character of a woman can be stigmatized and assassinated by the very society that we live in. Those guilty should be punished and that’s what the law says but at what cost? The question needs to be answered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Riya Hotchandani is a law student at Government Law College, Mumbai.
In Content Picture: Picpedia.org
Kindly note that the views and opinions expressed are of the author and not of the Indian Journal of Law and Public Policy.