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This article is written by Shivani Nair, from Manipal University Jaipur. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the topic of the constitutionality of media trials and the implications faced by the accused along with the landmark judgments in this topic. 

Introduction

After being regarded as one of the four pillars of democracy, the media plays a pivotal role in moulding and shaping the opinions of the society. It is capable of changing the mass mentality, through its viewpoint. However, with the increase in the role of its democratic frontiers, the need to look into its professionalism and reportage cannot be stressed enough. Which is why we need to understand what media trials are. 

Media Trials

There have been numerous cases where the media had taken the cases into their own hands and declared an accused as a convict, even much before the court had already given its decision. There have been quite infamous cases that would have led the court to declare the accused as innocent, had it not been the wrath of the media in shaping the opinions of the people as well as impacting the judgment of the Judiciary. A few of such cases are- The Jessica Lal case, 2010, The Priyadarshini Mattoo case, 2006 and The Bijal Joshi rape case, 2005. This phenomenon of declaring the accused as a convict even before the court had given its judgment, is called media trials. It is the widespread coverage of the guilt of the accused and imposing a certain perception about him, regardless of any of the verdict given by the court of law. Where there has been high publicity of court cases, the media has often played an important role in creating hysteria among the viewers, making it nearly impossible for the trial to result as a fair one. There have been reasons why the attention of the media around certain cases is sensationally high. The reasons are:

  1. Cases could involve children or they could be so horrific or gruesome that the media considers it necessary to sensationalize such cases. 
  2. The case could be of a leading celebrity either as a victim or as an accused. 

In the cases where big celebrities are involved, the influence of the media could drastically change the opinion of the so-called “fans” of such influential celebrities. 

History of Media Trials

The history of media trials goes back to the 20th Century. This term, though coined recently, had its meaning derived from the case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, 1921, who was acquitted by the court, but had lost all his reputation and his job after the media had declared him “guilty”. Another famous case is the trial of O.J. Simpson, 1995, where the media had promoted the case and influenced the mind of the viewers much above the status of the court. It is often, that coverage by the media can be said to reflect the views of a person who walks on a street. Therefore, the media acts as a bridge between different persons and the viewers. However, with media coming even more under the scrutiny of law, it has been considered that the media should publish facts about any person only after thorough proofreading, citing credible sources. Although, the use of media has been for both bad and the good. 

For example, in the case of Stephen Downing, 2002, in Derbyshire, the campaign by a local newspaper editor had reopened the case and had been a successful appeal and release of the convict after twenty-seven years of his conviction. 

Impact of Media Trials

The idea of the impact of media trials is such that the media has been successful in portraying events that have to be kept a secret. Though the media acts as a watchdog and brings us a platform where the people can know about the things happening in a society, it is important to know that this has only led to the whole of the world is biased against one community or a single person. Media trials have caused wrongful portrayal of alleged accused and have acted as a helping hand in destroying their careers merely by the fact that they were accused, even though they have not yet been portrayed guilty by the court of law. 

Constitutionality of Media Trials

The Constitutionality of media trials depends on the impact it leaves on the society as for the establishment of any rule of law, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are both mandatory. 

Freedom of Press

Article 19 of the Constitution of India gives us the right to freedom. The Constitution of India guarantees the Right to Freedom of Expression under Article 19(1), i.e the right to hold opinions without any interference and the freedom to seek, receive, impart information, ideas of any kind regardless of the frontiers, either orally, or in writing, or even in print, or in any form of art, or through any other media of the person’s choice. This is also subject to special duties and responsibilities and the right or reputations of others. The freedom of Press in India, although like the United States of America is not a separate guaranteed right, it is still covered and is given the status of freedom under Article 19 by the Supreme Court of India. 

However, in certain cases, the Supreme Court has stated that the trial by the press, electronic media, social media, or any other way of public agitation are instances where they could be described as anti-thesis of the general rule of law leading to the miscarriage of justice. 

Immunity under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971

Under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, publications under free trials are sheltered against contempt proceedings. However, any publication which interferes with or obstructs or tends to obstruct any proceeding, be it civil or criminal, and the course of justice, which is actually a pending proceeding, constitutes the contempt of court. It has been termed as contempt because some of the acts which are published before the verdict given by the court, can mislead the public and affect the rights of the accused of a fair trial. Such kind of publications may be related to his previous convictions or the confession he made in front of the police or merely character assassination of the accused. 

In the very famous case of Aarushi Talwar’s Murder, 2013, the media had declared who was guilty and who was not even before the actual trial had begun. There were mass protests and the public had gone into hysterics over the fact that her own parents were the cause of her death. But, this is also an immunity given to the press, even though the media had gone berserk in this case. Such publications have been known to have gone unchecked without the interference of the legislature. 

Media Trials vs. Fair Trials

Media trials have always given rise to a certain kind of problem as it involves the tug-of-war between two different principles which are the free trial and the free press, both in which the public at large is generally invested. The freedom of the press is a part of democracy in any country. This is the kind of justification, given to investigative journalism. 

But at the same time, the right to have a fair trial is a basic right that is given to every accused and the victim alike which is uninfluenced by any external source and is thus, recognized as a basic tenant of justice. There are many provisions which talk about this basic tenant, where the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, and the Article 129 and Article 215 (which talk about the power of the Supreme Court and the High Courts to punish itself for any contempt, respectively) of the Indian Constitution, play an important role. Thus, a journalist may be liable for the contempt of the court, where he decides to publish anything which might go against the “fair trial” of the accused or which may impair the impartiality of the court of justice during any proceeding. 

The right to a fair trial is an absolute right that is provided to any individual, within the territory of India vide Article 14, Article, 19, Article 20, Article 21 and Article 22 of the Constitution of India. 

The media trials have also pressured the lawyers not to take up cases where the public deems certain individuals as guilty, without actually being proven due to the media trials, thereby forcing the accused to withdraw his right to have an advocate. But, it also dissuades the advocates who actually take up such cases. For example, in the case where the senior advocate Ram Jethmalani had defended the accused Manu Sharma in Jessica Lal’s case, it was during this time, that one of the senior editor of a TV News channel had stated it to be a “defence of the indefensible”, thereby, declaring that the accused was already guilty of the crime he had not yet been proven of. The assumption of the media clearly encroaches upon the right of the accused to have a fair trial as well as his right to have a good advocate. 

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Is Media Trial a Contempt of Court?

The media trial definitely falls under the ambit of the contempt of court. Thus, it should be made punishable. The right to a fair trial must be uninfluenced by the newspaper publications or even the headlines of the news. But what happens, when the leading news channels decide to go against the ethical code of contempt? Then decide to sabotage the career of the accused even before his guilt is proven in the court of law? They portray him as an evil person during the prime-time when all the viewers are generally geared in front of their television. It is important to note that the idea of democracy is fair play and transparency and by such an act of the media, the concept of democracy is at stake. Thus, any attempt made to sabotage the other pillars of democracy, by one of them, must be held as contempt. 

Landmark Cases related to Media Trials

There have been many landmark cases related to the contempt of the court. A few of them are listed below:

In the case of In re P.C. Sen, 1968, a special leave petition had been filed that a broadcast that had taken place on the night of November 25 1965, on an All India Radio station had been obstructive in the course of justice and had amounted to contempt of court as it gave out the details of the accused. Justice Shah stated that any law related to the contempt of the court is well-settled. Any act that is done or published to bring any Jude or the court to the ambit of contempt or which tries to bring down the authority of the court of that anything that tries to interfere with the proceedings of the law will be termed as contempt of court. 

In the case of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr, 1973, there was a curfew that had been imposed in a small district of Andhra Pradesh. It was brought before the court that the curfew that was imposed was arbitrary and that there was no law upholding the same. During this time, while the case was pending, the “Deccan Chronicles” had published about the law of curfew and why it was imposed along with its historical background and stated everything about the case. It was then it was observed that, when a litigation was pending in the court of law, there shall be no comments made regarding that litigation which may cause substantial danger of prejudice of any trial, for instance, the prejudice in the decisions given by the judge, the witness or any other general public having access to such media news. It was also stated in this case that, even if a person who publishes such news believes in his or her capacity for it to be true, it shall still stand as contempt of the court for the reason that this truth was established before the verdict given by the judiciary. 

In the case of Sushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration and Ors.), 1996, there was little evidence that the accused had murdered his partner. However, while the case was still pending in the court, the media had started portraying the accused as a murderer and was capable of changing the views of the public even before the decision of the case. It held by the High Court of Delhi that the conviction of any person would solely be based on the facts of the case and not because the media wanted the person to be declared as guilty. The charges also have to be framed against the person accused based on the evidence available on record and not based on what the media portrays the person to be. 

Regulatory Measures

As we talk about the restrictions to be imposed on the media, it can be noted that the restrictions that have to be imposed on the media have to be reasonable and not anything that would curtail the power and limit the power of media by a significant amount. Where Article 19 of the constitution gives the power to the media to express itself through the freedom of speech, it is also important to note that this article also gives reasonable restrictions while expressing oneself, such as the areas of restrictions provided under Article 19(2). Thus, it is the constitutional responsibility of the courts to ensure that such restrictions do not go beyond the ambit of the reasonable restrictions as mentioned in the Constitution of India. 

The establishment of the Press Council of India has also been a significant influence on the fact that it has regulated the power of the press to prevent it from publishing prejudiced content. This way, the content that goes out to the viewers remains under the control and anything that goes against the law, will come under the ambit of contempt. 

The most appropriate way to regulate the press would be to punish those who violate this basic code of contempt of the court. 

Conclusion

From the above article, it has been clear that the media trials have had more of a negative impact than a positive one. The media has to be properly regulated by the courts. While a media which has been controlled by the government is not good for democracy, the implications and the result of unaccounted publications are even more damaging not just to the reputation of the person but also to the judgment imposed by the courts. Therefore, media trials have only served to help the people in only very few instances but that does not happen in all the cases, thus it is necessary to have restrictions imposed on it.


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