The advent of the internet has greatly enhanced the powers of the Media in India, and in the World at large. It connects the people together and plays a very important role in shaping the general public’s perspective about other people by what they publish and therefore have a strong command on public opinion.
The media plays a key role in shaping and changing the opinions of society. However, it is pertinent to look at its professionalism and ethics considering that media trials are often conducted in various mediums. There have been many cases where the media had taken cases into its own hands and declared an accused guilty even before the court has given its decision. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is one of them.
The situation turned acutely problematic in the Sushant Singh Rajput case when the accused (Rhea Chakraborty) was put to trial with sufficient bias and painted in Demonic colors by the Media, even before the Judicial Procedure had been initiated, thereby interfering with her ‘Right to Fair Trial’.
Here, the right to fair trial of the accused comes directly in conflict with the ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’ of the media, which cannot be de-prioritized in any manner.
This incident has once again raised a discussion at lengths pointing the vices relating to “Trial by Media”, its impact on pre-judicial trial, and how ‘Trial by Media’ has become a substantial part of judicial proceedings and advocates the need to strike a balance between the rights of the stakeholders involved.
Through this article, an effort has been made to study the legitimacy of the subject under the light of the Principles of Natural Justice. A careful analysis has also been made of the outstanding case-laws on the subject which deliberates the extent to which public opinion affects the views of the judges – or if at all they do.
MEDIA AS THE FOURTH PILLAR OF DEMOCRACY
One of the pillars of any democratic nation is the freedom to free speech and expression. It is a core freedom without which a democracy cannot survive. The fact that people can voice their opinions without any fear forms one of the very important characteristics of any democracy. In India, this right can be found deeply embedded under Article 19(a) of the Constitution. This right, by judicial interpretation also includes inter alia the freedom of press.
The importance of freedom of press has been recognized world-wide, because of the crucial role it plays in the political development and social upliftment. The issue was discussed at lengths at the Dakar Conference on World Press Freedom in 2005 wherein it was stated that “An independent, free and pluralistic media have a crucial role to play in the good governance of democratic societies, by ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting participation and the rule of law, and contributing to the fight against poverty.”
The importance of this right despite being widely recognized the chances of unlimited right being misused cannot be ignored. To curb such misuse, certain restrictions have been put on the same by Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The need to reasonably restrict the freedom of press has also been reiterated time and again by various Indian courts.
MEDIA TRIALS AND JUDICIARY
In India, media trials have assumed significance. There have been several cases where the media had taken the case into their own hands and declared judgment against an accused contrary to fair trials in court.
There have been quite infamous cases as well that outraged the public and impacted the Judiciary such as The Jessica Lal case(2010) where the media rejoiced over their efforts in bringing justice to Jessica Lal and the trial court had acquitted the accused of all the charges. The Priyadarshini Mattoo case (2006), where a law student was raped and murdered and the judgment of this case was suspected to have been influenced by Media Trial. The Bijal Joshi rape case and Nitish Katara murder case gave credits to media where the accused would have gone unpunished if media wouldn’t had intervened.
But on the other side, media also pinpointed innocent people in the case of Malegaon blast and Maria Susairaj case ignoring the importance of accuracy.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH VS. MEDIA TRIALS
Freedom of speech i.e. Article 19(1)(a) plays an important role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. Thus, it can be said that freedom of speech is the mother of all other liberties. Complying to the statement Justice Venkataramiah of the Supreme Court in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India (1984) has iterated:
“Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now presumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education feasible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television or modern communication devices are not still available for all sections of society.”
Sometimes where there has been high publicity of court cases, the media has played a crucial role in creating panic among the viewers, making fair trial nearly impossible. There have been grounds why the attention of the media around certain cases is sensationally high. The grounds are:
Cases could involve children or they could be so barbaric or gruesome that the media considers it mandatory to sensationalize such cases.
The case could concern a leading celebrity either as a victim or as an accused.
In the cases where leading celebrities are involved, the influence of the media could drastically change the opinion of the "fans" of such influential celebrities. One such case has been Rhea Chakraborty v. State of Bihar, 2020 (Sushant Singh Rajput Death Case) where media had played a crucial role and the accused raised the issue of media trials.
INTERPLAY BETWEEN MEDIA TRIAL V. FAIR TRIAL
At the same time, the "Right to Fair Trial", i.e., a trial uninfluenced by extraneous pressures is acknowledged as a basic tenet of justice in India. Legal provisions aimed at securing the said right is contained under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 of the Indian Constitution (Contempt Jurisdiction that is; Power of Supreme Court and High Court to punish for Contempt of itself respectively).
The major concern of the media is the restrictions that are imposed on the discussion or declaration of matters relating to the merits of a case pending before a Court. A journalist can be held responsible for contempt of Court if he publishes anything which prejudices a ‘fair trial’ that impacts the impartiality of the Court to decide a cause on its merits, irrespective of the nature of the proceeding whether civil or criminal?
The Hon'ble Supreme Court of Indi, in the matter of Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Ltd. and Ors.Vs. Securities and Exchange Board of India case instituted the five judge Constitution Bench when during the pendency of appeal despite the interim order of the Court some of the news papers published the proceedings of the judgment, the Hon'ble Court laid down appropriate guidelines with regard to reporting in electronic and print media of matters which is sub judice in Court including public disclosure of documents forming part of Court proceedings and also the manner and extent of publicity to be given by print/electronic media of pleadings/documents filed in proceeding in Court which are pending and not yet adjudicated upon.
DOES MEDIA TRIAL LEADS TO A DISCORD OF RIGHTS?
The discussion above clearly leads to the conclusion that Media trial has negative as well as positive outcomes. If on one hand it has led to harassment of the innocent, it has also led to conviction of the accused, which would not have been possible without its intervention.
The question however is whether such harassment of the innocent is a cost worthy of getting a few guilty to justice? The answer probably lies in a famous statement made by a legendary English jurist way back in the 1760’s:-"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"
This common law maxim has also been accepted in India, on the basis of which the Supreme Court of India observed that there must be a fact of prejudice being caused. A mere possibility of prejudice being caused is not enough to occasion a failure of justice. However, a balancing approach is the need of the hour. If on one hand there is a need to respect the freedom of speech and expression, a right guaranteed under Article 19, which is also available to the media, it also has to be ensured that on the other hand that it does not converge and violate the right to a fair trial recognized under Article 21.
The 200th report of the Law Commission on “Trial by Media” has been a welcome step in this regard. Media should acknowledge the fact that whatever they publish has a great impact over the spectator and hence, a right balance should be struck by courts while interpretation of cases, between the right to free press and principles of natural justice guiding fair trial of cases.