This article is written by Kruti Brahmbhatt and edited by Shashwat Kaushik, pursuing a Diploma in International Contract Negotiation, Drafting and Enforcement from LawSikho. This article deals with the media trials and their impact on various aspects of society, law and individuals.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
Table of Contents
Many times, the media is referred to as the face of a country, the reason being that it plays a vital role in a democratic country, which means how free the media is to represent and reflect the current and actual position of a country. This means that it has a great responsibility to perform. The important duty of the media is to inform, reflect and deliver the unfiltered truth.
However, unfortunately, many times, in the race to be first, the facts are more or less overlooked. Hence, in the current situation, it is important to consider how wisely the media plays its role. In many cases, we have seen that the media runs parallel trials of a person or a case, especially if it is the case of any actor, politician or public figure. Such parallel-running media trials affect many other aspects of society and laws.
Media trials, characterised by sensationalised coverage and public scrutiny, have become an integral part of today’s news landscape. While the media plays a crucial role in informing the public, the impact of media trials on both society and the judiciary raises important questions about ethics, fairness, and the rule of law.
What are media trials
Every now and then, we find some or other discussions, debates and investigations going on in social or other forms of media.
Generally, trials are run by judicial bodies in order to decide a particular case. In a similar fashion, when the media, before the judgement of the court, runs such parallel trials in any manner, then such trials are known as media trials. Herein, the media acts like any investigative agency and covers the case thoroughly.
In such trials, the media coverage directly portrays the accused as a criminal, which is a complete violation of the law. Any under-trial prisoner cannot be treated as a criminal until and unless proven guilty. Media trials take place, especially when any celebrity or other famous public figure is involved. Other than that, in cases of murder or rape, it takes place very often.
Some famous such cases are the Aarushi Talwar Murder case, wherein her own parents were made and portrayed as murderers. Later, they were acquitted by the Allahabad High Court. In the Nirbhaya Rape case, the media made it a public movement but in many of the channels, the victim’s character was questioned. When such a heinous crime takes place, the media is supposed to act responsibly. However, such an act by the media should be criticised. Questioning the victim’s character leads to demotivating other victims from raising their voice against such a crime.
Media trials and society
Society’s perspectives are in some way based on what they watch or listen to; eventually, their perspectives are based on what media shows them or what has been created by other people on such platforms. In a country like India, where everyone has their own derived judgements, media trials add to it.
Even before any proper investigation, just on a prima facie basis, media trials create an image of the accused as a criminal. It directly violates his right to privacy and a fair chance to gain justice.
In this situation, society begins to criticise and distance itself from both the individual and their family. Without any kind of investigation or punishment, they live the life of a criminal. Such social behaviour disturbs the accused as well as his family. It creates an environment of mental distress and harassment. Not only that but it would even have a psychological impact on the accused and his/her family, especially if the accused is not guilty.
Effects of media trials
In the Indian Constitution, there is a fair division between freedom and restrictions. However, many times, the media tends to forget it. Which leads to violations of the provisions and has many aftereffects.
- Ultra-vires right: under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution, it gives freedom to express opinion freely with reasonable restrictions. The reasonable restrictions are imposed in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Hence, the press’s freedom of speech and expression is not unfettered. One must not forget that the right is given for opinions and not trials. This is a clear violation of its and others’ rights.
- Risk of riots: The impact of media on society is huge and thereby the media has to act responsibly or else it would create a chaotic, uncontrollable situation. There are many such sensitive situations wherein media trials would lead to communal violence or regional group violence or may even accelerate violence. Media trials are often based on primary information, which may even be misleading to society, especially in such sensitive times.
Effects of media trials on an individual
Media trials can invade one’s privacy and disrupt their peace. It becomes a challenge for an accused to live in society and continue with his/her normal routine. It may even result in the person’s unemployment, even if he/she is not guilty.
- Reputation: The reputation of the accused gets destroyed in the media trials without any certain judgement. At times, even the victim’s personal information is publicly exposed on television and in newspapers. For instance, in the Kathua Gang Rape case, the identity of the minor victim was disclosed. For which the Court barred the media according to the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. This can have adverse effects on the victim’s life.
- Mental distress: The ongoing legal trials and constant exposure of the same issue in the media can exacerbate the mental distress of the victims and their family members. The creation of such an environment can further lead to traumatic situations. In the urge to get more views or have higher TRPs, the media gets greedy and does not really care about an individual.
- Breach of privacy: According to the Indian Constitution, under Article 21, it is a citizen’s fundamental right to have the right to privacy, which the media seems not to understand. In the case of Sushant Singh Rajput, the media intensely covered it and even showed his personal diary to the world. The media’s role again here was widely criticised.
Media trials and the judiciary
The judiciary is one of the pillars of Indian democracy. The establishment of the judiciary is meant for the fair and smooth practise of law in the country. The rights of the citizens are surely protected through the judicial process. Whether he/she is an accused or victim, both must have a fair chance of representing themselves before the courts of justice, which has been enshrined in the Constitution. The judiciary is a completely independent body and the main motive or objective of having such a body is to have a fair trial and to deliver justice without any kind of political or social pressure.
Whereas due to media trials, a public opinion is formed, which, on some or another basis, creates pressure on the judges and might eventually, to a certain extent, affect the judicial process. According to Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, media trials are directly contempt of courts, as such media is not allowed by any means to publish or broadcast any such opinions or views of any case that is still under the proceedings of the court.
This directly means that media trials and judicial trials cannot go hand in hand.
Impacts of media trials on the judiciary
- Societal pressure: Due to media trials, huge societal pressure is built on judges, which makes it difficult for a judge to conduct a free and fair trial for the accused. This may make it difficult for the judges to be impartial and not form an image of the accused. Many times, it may have an influence on the judgements of the court as an image is already portrayed.
- Lowers the authority of the court: In the case of 26/11 even before the court announced their judgement, the media declared that the accused would be awarded the death penalty. Indirectly, it reduces the importance of the courts and lowers their authority by connecting the case with emotions and societal pressure. The judgements of the court have to be in accordance with the law and its process. Wherein the media trials directly hinder it. Only the judiciary has the power to decide or declare any kind of punishment for any accused.
- Disruption to administration of justice: Under the constitution, even for heinous crimes, the fair process of law has to be followed and accordingly, the punishment has to be given. Due to the influence of the media and its coverage of certain cases, there is a complete disruption in the administration of justice. The media is just allowed to give relevant updates to the public in a factual manner but the media does interfere and disturb the process.
The Supreme Court on media
There are multiple cases where the Supreme Court has pointed out media trials and emphasised the media’s importance of acting responsibly.
Air India Urination case (2023)
In one of the incidents wherein the allegations were made against a man that he had urinated on an Air India flight. The court clearly showed its concerns over the news channel for being “TRP-driven”.
The bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna said, “He was called names. He was denigrated. Everyone has the right to dignity.” Indeed, in the race to being most popular the news channel forgets the individual’s life and his/her privacy.
Pradyuman Thakur case (2017)
This case was a perfect example of how a media trial had detrimental effects on the accused.
Facts of the case: A seven year old boy in Haryana was found dead with many injuries. In the initial proceedings, his bus conductor was charged with murder but later found innocent. This case was further transferred to CBI, where an unnamed sixteen year old student from the same school has since been charged with his murder.
Media trial effects on the case: the media had declared the bus conductor a criminal for murdering the student without any kind of judicial trial. Which resulted in no lawyer being ready to represent the bus conductor. The media had defamed him in such a manner that he was removed from his job and his career was badly affected by the same.
Just on the basis of mere speculations in the media, the person had to suffer a lot. Definitely, things could have been better if the media had acted responsibly.
Sushant Singh Rajput case (2020)
In this famous case, Rhea Chakraborty, the accused, was constantly followed by the media and was subjected to character assassination. She was in a relationship with the actor but was still accused of practising black magic on him. Constantly, her images and chats were published in the media.
Media trials were run to such an extent that the Bombay High Court held that a media trial interferes with the administration of justice and could lead to obstructing the investigation and administration of justice.
Analysis: If the media were to be fully regulated, it would result in the disappearance of press freedom in the country. There would be a controlled media system in a country, which can be even more dangerous for us. At the same time, regulating media trials is equally important. It is really high time now that the media strictly follow ethical journalism and maintain a certain level of privacy.
The laws must be made to enforce the Press Council guidelines and other regulations. The media licencing laws need to be strict now, and strict laws must be made regarding their suspension and renewal. The laws must draw a line between freedom of the press and the right to privacy. Both the judiciary and media can work in their accordance and one does not interfere in other work. The trials can be reduced only if the media platforms get rid of their TRP games. Responsible media is a desperate need in India, especially for the youth of India.
In the case of Saibal Kumar Gupta and Ors. vs. B.K. Sen and Anr (1961), it was held by the Supreme Court 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 results of that investigation. This is because trials 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. There is no comparison between a trial by a newspaper and what has happened in this case.”
In the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) vs. Union of India (2018), the Supreme Court has also recognised that media trials can infringe upon the right to privacy of an individual and has cautioned the media against violating the privacy of individuals involved in legal proceedings.
In the case of Harper Collins Publishers India … vs. Sanchita Gupta @ Shilpi & Ors. (2020), the Delhi High Court stated that there can be no bar on the discussion/publication but the moment these discussions are mere speculations or are baseless imputations, the person has the right to protect her/his reputation.
The functions of the media and judiciary must not overlap each other and instead must build a transparent society together. Still, there are many such people who, under the fear of media and media trials, refrain themselves from speaking the truth or from getting justice. The witnesses are also an important part of judicial trials and often stay away due to the ongoing media coverage.
The duty of the judiciary is to deliver justice and the duty of the media is to deliver information. If this concept is well understood, then the current media trials won’t be repeated again.
While media trials are a reflection of the evolving media landscape, their impact on society and the judiciary necessitates careful consideration. Balancing the right to information with the need for a fair trial is crucial to uphold the principles of justice and maintain public trust in both the media and the legal system. Only through responsible reporting and a collective commitment to ethical standards can we navigate the delicate intersection of media, society, and the judiciary.
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