Trial by media
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This article has been written by Smita Sonawane, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.

Abstract

Media gets the freedom of the press under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India which provides for freedom of speech and expression, by virtue this Freedom Media reports news and publishes articles in the newspaper based on the data collected and the interviews conducted relevant to the case of various personnel’s based on which the matters which are pending before the Court of Law lead to the miscarriage of justice and creates confusion and goof up to the society. The part of role played by the media in high profile cases by conducting the investigations and continuous reporting of the news create so much of Publicity on the matters and causes prejudice or bias view which largely affects the administration of justice and sometimes the judges has to be neutral in passing the verdict only the basis of the facts and evidence produced in the Court of Law and further may force the judge to pass the verdict against the accused even though the accused is innocent.

Introduction

The criminal jurisprudence followed in India is based on the theory that an accused is entitled to fair trial and is innocent till proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Exclusive media coverage increased the TRP of the channel and published the interviews of witnesses, victims’ relatives which is the main evidence in the matter and due to which the trial proceedings get damaged which results in unfair justice to the accused. It is found majorly that the media reaches out to the masses promptly. In former years we have witnessed that media is playing a vital role and due to its influence in the process of access of justice in a plethora of cases relating to corruption, rape, murder, sexual harassment, terrorist activities etc. 

Media activism imposes indirect pressure on the adjudicating authorities to deliver justice to victims which may interfere with the trial proceedings and may cause prejudice to the accused and chance of proving the victim innocence. Trial by media means the impact of the newspaper and coverage in Television on the actual story, the television coverage on the incident and its further widespread observation of guilt regardless of any verdict in Court of law. Media overlooks the primary idea that governs trials in India which is “Guilty beyond reasonable doubt” and “Innocent until proven guilty”.

Freedom of speech and expression is the most powerful key that helps the media perform its functions. The freedom of speech and expression is entailed in Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India, however, it is not absolute freedom but it is subjected to restrictions established by law. Despite the reasonable restrictions of freedom of speech and expression, one can see the way in which the media abuses this freedom in the name of its own trial to interfere in the administration of justice which is punishable under Section12 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

Media reporting of crime and fair trial

Trial by media starts much before the actual trial in the Court. In matters such as Arrest, Bail, Confessional Statements, Interrogation matters the media conducts the parallel proceedings for increasing the movement or manipulating the justice. Its puts burden on a trial Court which has a constitutional duty to minimize the effects of prejudicial publicity. Media and judiciary discharges public duties and should continue to enjoy independence and freedom of action without threats of intrusion. 

The Court of Law while granting anticipatory bail to an accused in dowry death before the Kolkata Court, the Supreme Court has criticized the media who has published an article touching the facts of pending case; the article was based on the interview of the family of the deceased. While investigating it was found that the facts narrated by the media were on sides which might have been used in trial prejudicing the fair trial procedure. 

Media played a leading role in recent times and the efforts of media to discover truth has played an essential role in delivering justice in some of the very famous cases which were pending for so long before This Hon’ble Court and justice was awaited in famous “Jessicalal Case, Nirbhaya Case, Priyadarshini Mattoo Case, Sanjeev Nanda Case, Arushi Talwar Case, Sheena Bora Murder case”.

The repercussions of  trial by the media

  • The trial by media will have effect on judiciary if the publications of news reports by media are inaccurate which can prejudice the mind of judges and that may lead to miscarriage of justice, interfere with administration of justice and affect the independence of judiciary. The repercussions of media trial can be seen in some of the landmark cases which had both positive and negative impact on Judiciary. 
  • In R.K Anand v Delhi High Court the important questions relating to trial by media were examined by the Supreme Court. The case arose out of a sting operation carried out by a private television channel NDTC to expose the unholy nexus between the prosecution, its witness and defense in the favor BMW hit and run case which has resulted in death of six persons by speeding BMW car which was driven by the scion of an influential and wealthy family. At the pendency of the trial even after eight years of the incident, NDTC telecasted a sting operation to expose the manner in which a senior advocate appearing for the accused was negotiating with the help of special public prosecutor to sell out in favor of defense, the Delhi High Court which then initiated the Suo-moto contempt proceedings and held the special public prosecutor and the defense counsel guilty of contempt of court and they were debarred from appearing in Delhi High Court and its subordinate Courts for four months. Then the appeal was filed before the Supreme Court, which contended that NDTV was guilty of trial by media and it could have telecasted the sting only after obtaining the permission of the High Court. The Supreme Court of India rejected the contention holding that such a course would not be an exercise in journalism but in that case the media would be acting as some sort of special vigilance agency for the Court. The Court dismissed the appeal of R.K Anand and issued him a notice for the enhancement of punishment.

Contempt of court and trial by media

  • Under Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Contempt is classified under civil and criminal heads. Contempt legislation is a well settled comprehensive legislation, it is enacted to maintain dignity of courts and to protect the administration of justice. Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India empowers the Supreme Court and High Courts respectively to punish a person for Contempt of the Supreme Court and High Courts as a case may be.

Contemporary instances of trial by media

  • Recently Sarvjeet Singh, who had been falsely accused by one Jasleen Kaur for harassing her where she posted a picture of him on Facebook which went viral, led to the arrest of Sarvjeet Singh. After the inquiry it came to light that Sarvjeet Singh was innocent but due to the media coverage and hype created by the media, the media labelled him as a harasser and Sarvjeet Singh faced public humiliation and was sacked from his job. This incident clearly shows how the media can ruin the life of an innocent through its coverage without verifying with the true events.

Conclusion

  • Freedom of speech and expression is an imperative right in every democracy. Media also enjoys the same rights and in a broad perspective they exercise the same for the betterment of society. Sensationalizing news is not a new phenomenon but assuming themselves in the role of police and judges by investigation, collecting evidence and making a decision is a major concern. When a crime is committed it is taken as something affecting the society and hence state comes immediately as the complainant and proceeds with the matter.
  • Under the hood of “Media Trial”, where the media itself conducts a separate investigation, builds public opinion against the accused even before the court takes cognizance of the case, by this way it prejudices the public and the judges and as a result the accused, that should be assumed innocent, is presumed as a criminal. 
  • Though the 17th Law Commission of India in its 200th report came across this problem, no serious step has been taken in this regard except with a recommendation to treat sub judice period from the time of arrest instead of filing of the charge sheet. The step is too inadequate to deal with the administration of justice under the head of media trial. Thus, a separate law is required in India to control media from unduly interfering with the administration of justice under the pretext of media trial.”

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