Media plays an imperative role in a democratic society like ours. It acts as an ‘educator’ by disseminating information about the happenings in the society to the public at large. It plays the role of a watchdog and helps in molding public opinion. However, lately, it has assumed the role of a ‘Public Court’ through parallel trials. It has time and again been subjected to criticism for the negative impact such trials have on the ongoing cases. It results in more harm than benefit, as it violates the freedom of speech and expression, right to a fair trial, right to privacy, etc of the accused, all in the name of transparency.
This article aims to discuss the meaning and impact of media trials in our country, and also discusses a few cases which have been prey to media trials.
Impinges– Affect, especially a negative one.
Thwart– prevent (someone) from accomplishing something.
Implication– The conclusion that can be drawn from something although it is not explicitly stated.
Media is often regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, it plays the role of a watchdog in society and provides the relevant news to the people of the country. Not only this, but media also helps shape the opinion of people through analyzation of the information that it shares on its platform. As the freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a), therefore, we must have an independent and uncensored media. But, this freedom is not absolute as it can be curtailed for the reasons mentioned in Article 19(2). Thus, a balance has to be maintained between the freedom of the press and the restrictions that can be imposed on it.
Lately, this pillar of democracy is losing its credibility because it is increasingly being used by political parties to further their vendettas and is becoming more about TRP than about genuine events. There is the corporatization of media and the platforms show more advertisements than actual news.
‘Media Trial’ or ‘Trial by Media’ is used to describe the scenario in which media itself becomes the judge and the jury about an ongoing case, and decides whether a person is guilty or not even before the courts have given a verdict. In simple words, it can be said that the term ‘Media Trial’ is used to refer to the impact (often negative) of media coverage on the presumption of guilt or innocence of an undertrial. The picture painted by media leads to prejudice among people which puts pressure on the police and official machinery, which in turn affects the investigation.
Impact of Media Trials
- On Freedom of Speech and Expression:Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression to all the citizens. It includes within its ambit, the Freedom of Press. A free press is imperative for the proper functioning of a democracy, it plays the role of a ‘public educator’ and keeps the masses informed of the on-going issues. They have a right to cover the recent developments in the society and the citizens have a right to know the same.
However, this freedom needs to be exercised within reasonable limits, and hence can be limited under Article 19(2) in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India; security of the State; public order, decency or morality; about contempt of Court; etc. When the media exceeds its limits, like in the cases of media trial, it needs to be controlled as it not only impinges the person’s right to privacy but also their right to a fair trial in the Court.
- On Right to Fair Trial:Every person has a right to a fair trial in our country. It is based on the principle of presumption of innocence, according to which, a person is innocent until proven guilty. This principle forms the basis of our criminal jurisprudence. The right to a fair trial is covered under the ambit of article 21, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. It is also covered under International Conventions such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Thus, it is a basic human right of a person under trial.
When an accused is subjected to media trial in a case, he is brought under the public light. The half-baked truths as shown by the media become the basis on which people form an opinion of the case and deliver their judgment, holding the person guilty or innocent. It also leads to forming a bias towards the victim and against the accused, which also leads to interference with the proper delivery of judgment. Media trial becomes a parallel trial of the victim which leads to further interference with the course of justice. Thus, this leads to a violation of the aforementioned rights of such an accused person.
- Contempt of Court:Under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, contempt is defined as either civil or criminal. Further, criminal contempt has been divided into three parts, i.e., Scandalizing, Prejudicing or interfering with due course of judicial proceedings, and Hindering the administration of justice. It is based on the principle of ‘Right to Fair Trial’.
By commenting on the case that is ‘pending’ and declaring the guilt of the accused, media trials amount to contempt of court as by creating negative impressions on the regarding the accused, it leads to creating a bias in the minds of the people and thus it interferes with the due course of the judicial proceeding. Moreover, due to its wide coverage in media, it may also lead to influencing the witnesses or other parties interested in the case, thus interfering with the administration of justice.
- On Right to Privacy and Reputation:Courtesy of the landmark Puttaswamy judgment by the Supreme Court in 2017, every citizen has a right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This means that a person has a right to decide what aspects of his life, he wants to share with the public.
But, in the case of media trails, this right of the accused is grossly violated. The accused is shown in a bad light by bringing up his past involvement in any case or his personal life, like his friends or family and his profession, to name a few, which do not have any real bearing on the case. The accused is constantly on the radar of the media, and even the slightest of changes in the case or personal life of the accused is flashed on national platforms. Apart from this, some of the media-houses also conduct sting operations to prove a particular claim made by them, which also violates the privacy of the individual against whom the operation is being conducted. This not only leads to trampling upon the right of privacy but also leads to the loss of reputation of such an accused. This would further lead to violation of the Right to the reputation of the accused as such a right is an integral part of Article 21 of the constitution.
· On Judges, Advocates and, Police: With so much media attention and public eye on the case, the police are forced to speed up the investigation of such a case. Due to the hastiness and the pressure created, they may sometimes overlook the details of the case, which again leads to violation of the right to a fair trial of the accused. In some cases, it might even lead to the implication of an innocent person.
Media trials can also influence the judges in certain cases. With all the information about the accused made public, the judge might make some inferences and form an opinion that might ultimately affect the trial of the accused. A strong public opinion might also sometimes thwart a judge from going against it. This leads to a violation of the principles of natural justice.
Furthermore, there have been instances where the advocate representing an accused who is subjected to media trial, has been forced to give up the case. For instance, in one of the famous cases, Mr. Ram Jethmalani had to drop it because of the pressure created on him. This also leads to the violation of the ‘Right to Legal Representation’ of the accused.
Some Instances of Media Trial
· Priyadarshini Mattu Case: In this case, brutal rape and murder of a 23-year old law student in her home in Vasant Kunj, Delhi took place, but the trial court acquitted Santosh Singh (the accused), remarking that “Though I know he is the man who committed the crime, I acquit him, giving him the benefit of doubt”. Thereafter, due to the media coverage, the CBI, who was investing the case, met with a lot of backlash and accusations that money had influenced the case.
Finally, due to the widespread outrage, the CBI filed an appeal in the High Court of Delhi, and the court sentenced the accused to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
But, it should be noted here that, had it not been for the media coverage, the accused would have gone unpunished. Therefore, it is one of the cases of media trials that did some good.
- Aarushi Talwar Case: The infamous case of the murder of Aarushi Talwar, is etched in the mind of every Indian. This is because of the wide media coverage that this case received and it’s a discussion on television like a dinner table gossip. The media viciously made up stories and assumptions regarding the case, like it was a case of honor killing, her father had an extra-marital affair, she was adopted and it even accused her parents of murdering their only daughter. Some news channels even went to the extent of asking their viewers to SMS guessing who the murderer was. The allegations made were so vile, that her parents had to get an order restraining the media while the investigation was on.
- Sushant Singh Rajput Case: This is the most recent case where media is running its parallel investigation. Ever since Sushant Singh’s father complained Rhea Chakraborty (SSR’s partner) for abetting the suicide of his son, the media has not spared her. From accusing her of practicing black magic to forcing drugs on Sushant, she has been in the public light for months now. The news channels have turned the case into a source of public entertainment by calling ‘paranormal experts’ to talk to Sushant’s spirits and reading Sushant’s diaries on national television. They have been showing private chats of Rhea and various other parties involved with the case on their platforms, completely disregarding the right to privacy. Some people have already declared Rhea as a ‘murderer’ even though the investigation is still going on and the court is yet to pronounce its judgment.
It is undisputed as to what damage media trials can do. Not only do they violate numerous rights of the accused, but also undermine the judiciary. Media cannot be given a free hand in covering the cases that are pending in courts, especially sensitive cases like rape, or cases relating to national security, etc. There needs to be a strict check on media trials to stop this ball from rolling. The media houses need to be made accountable for violations of rights caused by the media trials.
The media has to play the role of a facilitator rather than of the court. By showing the twisted facts and pronouncing its verdict, media trials do more damage than good. It creates bias not only among the people but also among the judges which leads to hampering the course of justice. Therefore, lessons need to be learned from the previous cases, only then can this fourth pillar of democracy be saved.
 Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retired). v Union of India And Ors., (2017) 10 SCC 1