Media Trials in India: A Judicial View to Administration
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Media Trials in India: A Judicial View to Administration

In the judgment declared on 18th January 2021, the Bombay High Court, India has elaborated the position of media trials in India, declaring the judicial point of view. The court viewed the effects and consequences of media trials in the administration of justice, a quintessential factor of modern democracies. The judgment pronounced by Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni of the Bombay High Court walks on a tight rope navigating the line between the “freedom of the press” guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India and the menace of media trials running contrary to the same Constitution of India. But, in a larger scheme of questions does this case stand as a novelty in the jurisprudence i.e. “Modern Foundation of Media Trials in India” in a world consumed by emerging technologies?

In the wake of the death by suicide of the popular Indian actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, the reporting of this case provided for a sad state of affairs by news reporting channels. The reporting by such news channels hampered the investigation which was exponentially important for justice administration. Several Public Interest Litigations were filed in the Bombay High Court against the media trials in the wake of such reportage. The 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. In the present case, the reputation of the partner of the deceased actor, actress Rhea Chakraborty, was brutally torn apart by the media houses in what may constitute a “media trial”.

In the past, the fourth pillar of Indian democracy has proved to be a tool of advancing the interest of the victims in remarkable cases such as the Jessica Lal Case, the Priyadarshini Mattoo Case, 2006 and the Bijal Joshi Rape Case, 2005. The power of the fourth pillar,“media”, has been immense, however, when this power hampers the administration of justice, intervention by the Court becomes necessary.

The judgment pronounced by Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni has touched upon several key issues in relation to media trials mainly dealing with: directions to prominent television networks to restrict reportage that could hamper the investigation, re-interpretation of contempt law, and guidelines for the regulation the print or broadcast media without curtailing the freedom of the press.

The highlight of the judgement lies in its guidelines established for media houses. The Court in its first provided guidelines of how media houses and channels must report cases dealing with suicide. Whereby the Court held that the privacy of the deceased must be respected at all times, the evidence of sensitive character must not be disclosed, police confessions cannot be made public and while the Court case goes ahead, no interviews of any personalities has to be taken.

The Court also raised the Press Council of India Guidelines and set that though they are binding on the print media, the electronic must abide the same too. In order to establish information in the interest of public.

An important facet of this judgment refers to the “administration of justice” and its extent of its application in modern democracies such as India. It also discusses the issue of contempt of court and places that disclosing any information during the investigation would amount to Contempt of Court. The Court held that TIMES NOW and REPUBLIC TV had reported cases maligning the investigation and obstructing the administration of justice. However, no action against them has been taken.

In the case Suresh Chandra Jana v. State of West Bengal (2017), the Supreme Court of India acknowledged the need to highlight the principle of “criminal justice administration”. This case constructed a broader understanding of the jurisprudence from a comparative perspective bringing the view of other modern democracies such as New Zealand, Australia, England, and the United States. In this case, the Supreme Court elaborated:

“Criminal Justice System seems to exist to protect the power, the privilege and the values of the elite sections in society. The way crimes are defined and the system is administered demonstrate that there is an element of truth in the above perception even in modern times.”

A new aspect of introducing a Media Officer has been suggested by the Court, who may act as a bridge between the media and investigating authority so as to let the public interest be preserved. However, the position can only be created through the legislature in letter and spirit.

On the subject-matter of forms of “regulation” by media houses, the Court has explicitly stated that concerns about the lack of regulation on the electronic mode and urged the Central Government to take appropriate measures to control the problem of “trial by media” through the establishment of statuary bodies.

While discussing the contempt liability issue, i.e. to re-interpret the contempt law with reference to publications of the cases made from the stage of filing an FIR in criminal cases may be subject to contempt liability. 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 contempt of court. An illustration of this immunity can be seen through the 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. The press had immunity for such a publication previously. However, no interference of the legislature was noted. However, a broader understanding of the same has been provided by the Court bringing the action of trial by media under the realm of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

In what may be constructed as the modern foundation of a judicial stance on “trial by media” redefining our understanding of the effects of excess report coverage in the case of Actor Sushant Singh Rajput, the Court seeks to strike a balance between the pillars of our democracy from the judiciary to the media. More so, the view of the court must not be viewed as a solution to this issue. The true achievement shall lie in compliance and administration with the recommended guidelines by the Bombay High Court. With the emergence of newer technology and accessibility to the information point, the “Modern Foundation of Indian Media Trials” jurisprudence shall evolve.

It is a fact that media is bound to report cases of public interest, but, now the media must think twice before it reports asking a crucial question, “does this article or statement cross the line of freedom of the press and enter the realm of media trial?”. The judiciary and media are institutions inhabiting separate spheres and their functions do not overlap. One cannot and must not use the other for the discharge of its functions. The media should only engage in acts of journalism and not act as a special agency for the court. The impermissibility of freedom of speech and expression amounting to an interference with the administration of justice due to the prejudicial nature of certain media coverage.

The guidelines set out to create a new standard of media coverage and resorting benign practices with restrictions created in the interest of the administration of justice.

 

Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a 4th Year Law Student at Government Law College, Mumbai, India and JURIST Staff Editor.

 

Suggested citation: Vishwajeet Deshmukh, Media Trials in India: A Judicial View to Administration, JURIST – Student Commentary, January 20, 2021 https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/vishwajeet-deshmukh-media-trials-india/.


This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


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