Written by Dyuti Banerjee of JIS University
Media is considered to be the fourth pillar of the democracy and in an ideal democratic form of government, working of a press independently and in a just manner ensures that the citizens of the country are rightly informed, educated and capable of analysing about the working of the government, formulation of its policies and various decisions taken by the government for the advancement of the citizens of the country.
The basic principle of the phrase ‘Freedom of Press’ or as per the Indian Constitution under Article 19(1)(a) ‘the right to freedom of speech and expression’ is to enable communication and expression of opinions through various forms of media without any unjustified restrictions on them. However, freedom of speech and expression does not permit the contempt of court. As restriction over the media means the death of the democracy similarly unchecked publication of articles and unregulated coverage may result in character assassination of an individual.
Trial by media came into the picture at the end of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century. In India, the power of media trial was noted in some famous cases like Ruchika Girhotra case, a 15-year-old girl who was molested by a high ranking police officer and soon after the incident committed suicide got justice after 19 years of the incident, Priyadarshini Matto case, a law student of Delhi University murdered at her residence and even after evidence produced before the district court the accused was acquitted later on an appeal to the Delhi High Court, the accused was sentenced as per the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, Jessica Lal murder case, where a woman was shot in her head for refusing to serve alcohol to the accused and his friends where the Delhi Trial court acquitted all the suspects. However, later on, they were convicted by the Delhi High Court.
In all the above cases, the accused were initially acquitted of their charges entirely, or there was a delay in the investigation. Media here played an enormous role with their unbiased investigation and by awaking the spirit of justice among its citizens for the truth to prevail and with the intervention of media, the actual perpetrators were punished for their criminal acts.
Media trials even brought reformation in the prevailing laws due to its extensive coverage in the case of 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder famously known as the Nirbhaya case, where six men were charged for the heinous crime. Among six of them, one committed suicide before his conviction and another was a juvenile and was sent to reformation centre as per the Juvenile Justice Act. In the media reports, it was suggested that the juvenile boy was the most brutal one as he was the one who attacked the victim with an iron rod and hence, to be tried as an adult. As the law stated a person below the age of 18 years to be treated as a juvenile and to be sentenced as per the Juvenile Justice Act, he was sent to a rehabilitation home for three years in North Delhi as the juvenile’s case was the most debated topic across the country, whether he should be treated as an adult or not since it was a crime if heinous nature. Subsequently, in 2015 Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 was passed in which juveniles in the age group of 16–18, involved in heinous offences, can be tried as adults.
Presently, media acts as a public court, who pronounces judgements even before the court or even before the proceedings of a trial. The role of the media should be:
- To detect the crime taking place
- Expose any protection given to the accused
- Unearthing facts and bringing them in the public domain, and
- Building pressure for the commencement of a fair investigation.
However, of late, even before the commencement of a proper investigation, media presumes guilt. The legal principle of innocent until proven guilty is being completely disregarded in case of media trials, and the presumption of guilt is being considered without any benchmark. For a fair and just investigation, media should abstain from striding guilt and a parallel trail going in media affects the investigation.
Portraying an individual as an accused and publication of biased articles calming an individual to be guilty of a crime even before the completion of the investigation or judgement given by the Hon’ble Court creates a prejudicial mind among the masses. Among such people lies the advocates who have to fight for that individual or the judge who has to deliver a verdict on that case. Being exposed before such biased publications repetitively might create a doubt in the mind of the defending lawyer hampering his full potential to justify such individual. The judge who is also exposed to such media trials might make him focus on such pieces of evidence produced before the court which will be against the accused as insinuated by the media and looking over pieces of evidence which might prove him innocent.
In 2008, the media declared the parents to be guilty in a double murder case in Noida famously known as Aarushi Talwar murder case and the public had a hysteric reaction over the fact that her parents were responsible for her death even before the trial begun. The media viciously played up different angles like honour killing, an alleged extra-marital affair of the father, fake news that Aarushi was an adopted child, demonised the parents for not crying enough on TV and a few channels even flashed her 17-year-old friend’s number live on-screen. Though on 2017 the parents got acquittal as the CBI could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her parents were guilty as all the evidence given by them were entirely circumstantial, the sufferings from the harassment by the public and by the media, trauma and degradation of their public image is irreparable.
In 2015, a woman from Delhi, posted a photo of a man, on Facebook and accused him of sexual harassment. The post went viral like a wildfire which was followed by a media trial labelling the man with terms like ‘pervert’ and ‘the predator of Delhi’ . Though four years later, the man was held innocent by the Delhi court and was acquitted of all the charges, due to such unrestricted media coverage, he had lost his job and could not find any other source of income during this time.
Currently, the word media not only suggests television and print media but also includes electronic media. It enables anyone who has an opinion to express it and pronounce it as verdict and along with it comes digital harassment and the digital assassination of one’s character. Though jury system is abolished in India, yet the so-called juries are called for debate who deliver ‘verdict’ as per the facts circulated over social media without proper validation and a large number of people believes that every fact shown over social media or electronic media is entirely true without any background checking and verification of facts.
In protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, starting from 14th December 2019, a peaceful sit-in protest was arranged in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi by local women demanding rolling back of CAA and non-implementation of NRC and NPR in the country which continued for more than 100 days. Few media channels started portraying this as an anti-national and terrorist agenda of a particular religious group, which instigated a mass of the population and resulted in a riot like situation and bloodshed.
Section 5 of Cable Television Regulation Act, 1995 prohibits any cable TV transmission that is not in conformity with the prescribed programme code. The Programme Code contains that the programmes should not offend against good taste or decency, or present half-truths, or criticize any individual, or reflect a snobbish attitude in the portrayal of certain ethnic, linguistic and regional groups and section 19 and section 20 of the Act bars telecasting of a programme which promotes communal agenda to arise disharmony. This a clear violation of the Act along with, it goes far beyond Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which allows the State to limit the freedom of speech only through reasonable restrictions in the interests of public order, defamation, or the security of the State.
It must be kept in mind that public opinion regarding matters being dealt by the court is contempt and media needs to be held accountable for its action. With the advancement of technology, a new form of offence needs to be addressed and properly regulated, which is verbal terrorism and visual extremism across various electronic and social media platforms affecting countless lives. It is essential to educate the citizens of the country to distinguish between sense and sensationalism, which will enable them to understand and analyse the events taking place around them as they are in reality and not as an agenda of media’s perspective reality.
 S.P.S. Rathore v. CBI & Ors., AIR 2016 SC 4486
 State v. Santosh Kumar Singh, 2007 CriLJ 964
 Sidhartha Vashisht v. State (NCT of Delhi), AIR 2010 SC 2352
 Rajesh Talwar and Ors. V. CBI and Ors., 2013 (83) ACC 283
 Sanchari Chatterjee, Complaint doubtful: Delhi court acquits Sarvjeet Singh in 2015 sexual harassment case, INDIA TODAY, October 26, 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/complaint-doubtful-delhi-courtacquits-sarvjeet-singh-in-2015-sexual-harassment-case-1613088-2019-10-26
Image courtesy: Live Law