|By Bobbala Jyothirmai|
“A defendant on trial for a specific crime is entitled to his day in court, not in a stadium or a city or nationwide arena.”
–Tom C. Clark
With the Press Council of India (PCI) releasing an advisory to stop parallel trial in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput, the debate between Right to Freedom of Press and Right to Free Trial is strongly reinforced. Apart from the current case, India has witnessed many other instances of what we term as “Media Trials” such as in the cases of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr,, Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), Chandan Panalal Jaiswal vs. State of Gujarat andSushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration and Ors).
So, what exactly is a media trial? A media trial is a phenomenon where the accused is declared/portrayed as convict even before the court of law gives its judgement. In other words, it is the widespread coverage of guilt of the accused that leads to creating a certain perception on him, regardless of what the law speaks in the matter. Media in India acts as a facilitator along with being an expeditor in many cases especially those which tend to influence the collective conscience of the society as a whole. And as an ironic reality, sensational journalism is often one of the faces of media which exists for the sake of TRP. Press & News media in our democracy is known as the fourth Estate which implies that it carries as much importance as Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive and the freedom of the same is protected under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution which is the Right to Freedom of Speech.
The Media in cases such as Jessica Lal has bought justice which was awaited by the victim for years. Media’s involvement in such cases often brings in equilibrium especially when it involves influential and rich people where the chance of fair trial often loses its way. Even though the freedom of the press is crucial in a country like India, we can never say that a collective right like Freedom of Press holds more vitality than an individual right like Right to Fair Trial. The press should not mistake its role for passing a judgement whereas it’s righteous role is to bring matters into view of the society and judiciary.
Such media trials leave a tremendous impact both legally as well as individually on the accused as well as on the victim. Due to sensationalism of the case, the victim who may or may not be able to accept such increasing popularity to his/her case goes through mental trauma and often it becomes difficult to move on in life. On the other hand, with media passing judgements as the accusations on the accused even before the court of law pronounces judgement leaves an unbearable mark on the mental status of the person (when the accused turns out to be innocent in reality). Such trials utterly fail the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” which is a central tenet of the Indian criminal justice system.
Apart from media trials standing as the main cause for debating between Right to Freedom of Press and Right to Fair Trial, they are contributing to a sub war between trial by media and trial by court.One of the most objectionable and unfortunate of the role of media these days turns out to be the coverage of a sensational crime and adducing of its evidence which begins very early even before an offence is cognizedand proceeds to trial. This trend has led to a person being declared guilty right at the time of the arrest itself. Media is not constrained by conventional evidentiary laws that govern what evidence may and cannot be used to prosecute an offender.As a consequence, a victim’s right to justice is jeopardized specifically in instances of harassment and sexual abuse in which the prosecutor’s previous criminal activity frequently makes its way into news articles.They are viewed as a Television show material that holds credibility and picture at risk. Even if the Court acquits them based on evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, their previous image cannot be revived.Such exposure to them is likely to jeopardise many of the sacred liberties that surround independence. In furtherance to this, the SCI remarked in Saibal Kumar v. B.K. Sen:
“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 results of the investigation. This is because trial by newspapers, when a trial by one of the regular tribunals of the country is going on, must be prevented. The basis for this view is that such action on the part of a newspaper tends to interfere with the course of justice, whether the investigation tends to prejudice the accused or the prosecution”.
One of the other aspects of media trial is its actionability as Contempt of Court. Generally, an action is referred to as Contempt of Court when it interferes with the court of law’s discharge of justice while dealing with a case leading to improper delivery of justice. It can be in the form of disobedience to the rules of the court resulting in disturbance to judges and any such action. Now how does a media trial contribute to contempt of court? Judges are professionals who are expected not to get affected consciously by anything that they hear outside a hearing regarding the case. But judges are humans too and the pull of the unconscious is powerful and might interfere with the rational process of delivering justice due to the media passing judgements. The task of delivering justice is delicate and media should not interfere to make it duely difficult. Adding to this, the SCI in the case of M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal, remarked the following in response to an article published passing judgements on the accused:
“We deprecate this practice and caution the Publisher, Editor and the Journalist who are responsible for the said articles against indulging in such trial by media when the issue is sub-judice. Others concerned in journalism would take note of this displeasure expressed by us for interfering with the administration of justice.”
Moving on to some conclusive remarks, it is an inevitable fact that media and judiciary are both oxygen to democracy. But the interference of media in the judicial process by directly or indirectly is no way justified and is a violation of the constitutional right of fair trial of the accused. The press should not play a dubious game in the administration of justice as the reaction of media, masses and other side effects should not become a consideration while delivering a fair judgement. Certain actions can be taken such as the appointment of a full-time news ombudsman known as the Reader’s Editor to oversee that the content being published is not violative of right to free trial, designing framework on cross-media restriction limits and bring the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill and New Content Code into an Act which is pending from long.Media should always act keeping in mind the fact that its role at best is agenda-building process and not agenda-setting process.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDITS : https://cafedissensusblog.com/2019/03/31/godi-media-medium-is-the-message/
PTI, “Sushant Singh Rajput case: Press Council asks media not to carry out its own ‘parallel trial’”, The Indian Express, Aug. 28, 2020.
Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr AIR 1975 AP 30.
Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi)[(2010) 6 SCC 1].
Chandan Panalal Jaiswal vs. State of Gujarat, 2003Cr.L.J 2992 (GH).
Sushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration and Ors1996 Cr.L.J 3944 (DH).
Shivani Nair, “Constitutionality of Media Trials”, Ipleaders, Jun. 29, 2020.
Pranati Kumari, “Media Trial- An Analysis” 2 MLJ 28 (2010).
Supra note 3.
Arun Kumar Singh, “Media Trials in India”, Dec. 1, 2014, available athttps://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2552426.
S. Santhosh Kumar, “Trial By Media – Transgressing the Lakshmanarekha” 5 MLJ 36 (2010).
Saibal Kumar v. B.K. SenAIR 1961 SCR 460.
John D. Pennekamp v. State of Florida (1946) 328 US 331.
M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal(2005) 2 SCC 686.
Supra note 7 at 2.