Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. In a democracy, people’s participation is of utmost importance and their welfare is the supreme law. And we cannot ensure the participation of people without conveying complete and bona fide information to the public. This is where the media’s role becomes very important. It serves as a bridge between the government and the public. So, a free and unbiased media is a requisite for Democracy.
Keeping this point in the view, our Constitution makers guaranteed the freedom of the press under Article 19(1) of the Constitution, under the heading Freedom of speech and expression. This Article is included in the Chapter titled Fundamental Rights of our Constitution, which is considered the Basic Structure of the Constitution, which gives us an idea of the importance given to this freedom by makers and Guardian of the Constitution. In Bennett Coleman &Co vs. Union of India, SC has cleared that although Article 19(1) does not mention the freedom of press, it is settled law that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of press and circulation.
In recent years the term “Trial by Media” has been coined several times. Now, Trial is a Court’s authority and involves various complex procedures. And Media’s role can be broadly considered as providing us with information and facts. Then what possibly be the meaning of this term?
In this article, let us try to understand what is meant by Trial by Media, and then we shall see what measures have taken by Courts to ensure the mandate of Article 19(1) as well the sole authority of the Court on holding fair trials.
WHAT IS TRIAL BY MEDIA
Trial by Media is a phrase used to describe the impact of print and electronic media on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a Court of law. Media doesn’t make any difference between an accused and convict. Where the Court of law, runs trials on the principle of ‘innocent, until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt’, media trials run on the principle of ‘guilty, until proven innocent”. These trials are the least accountable forms of trial and mold public opinions in the favor of one side, and hostility towards the other side. Rather than presenting the public with facts to form their opinion on, Media Trials give opinions to the public to form facts on that basis. This results in the building of public opinions on the side where media puts its sympathy on and complete denial of any other truth.
Further, where the trial in Court goes by the principle of “Audi alteram partem”( nobody shall be condemned unheard), trial by media is all about condemning one side and passing the verdict even before the Court has come to any conclusion. Trial by media is nothing short of the undue interference of the Media into Court proceedings.
Trial by media may be the least accountable but it is not unaccountable. The Court has shown its concern for the prejudicial coverage of crime and information about suspects and accused both in print and electronic media. It has directed the news channels and papers to not publish any item on news that defamatory to any person or organization or can be considered contempt of Court.
Law Commission in its 200th Report, titled, Trial by Media, has clearly stated that-
“Art. 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression and Art. 19(2) permit reasonable restrictions to be imposed by statute for various matters including ‘Contempt of Court’. Art. 19(2) does not refer to ‘administration of justice’ but the interference of the administration of justice is clearly referred to in the definition of ‘criminal contempt’ in sec. 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and in sec. 3 thereof as amounting to contempt. Therefore, publications that interfere or tend to interfere with the administration of justice amount to criminal contempt under that Act, and if to preclude such interference, the provisions of that Act impose reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, such restrictions would be valid.”
Commission further says that Article 21 gives any convict the Right to fair, just, and reasonable trial as pointed out by the apex court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (AIR 1978 SC 597).
Law Commission in its report recommended that journalists need to be trained in certain aspects of the law relating to freedom of speech in Art. 9(1) (a) and the restrictions which are permissible under Art. 19(2) of the Constitution, human rights, the law of defamation, and contempt. They also suggested that these subjects be included in the syllabus for journalism and special diploma or degree courses on journalism and law be started.
Court has further expressed its concern about the effect of media trials on the Judge’s decision. The sensationalism in Media affects Judges as well, as they are also human beings and public opinion created by the media affects their judgment.
Let us look at some cases where damages caused by Media Trial or a sort of blanket ban on Media for a particular case was pleaded in the Court.
SWATANTER KUMAR VS. THE INDIAN EXPRESS LTD (2014)
In this case, a former Supreme Court Judge was accused of sexual harassment by his law intern. The woman claimed that she was a law intern when the alleged incident took place. The defendant newspaper wrote a news report which was its heading “Another case of sexual harassment by the former SC Judge” and news channel Times Now and CNN-IBN held debates based on that report. Kumar filed a defamation suit and made The Indian Express and a senior reporter of the paper, Times Now and CNN-IBN, besides the woman, parties to the case.
By its interim order, the High Court has directed newspapers, TV channels, and websites to refrain from publishing any report, highlighting the allegations of sexual harassment against the former judge without specifying in the headline that they were “mere allegations”. A pre-publication restraint order was passed against reporting the name or photograph and without giving his side of the story. It also issued a temporary injunction on all media organizations, restricting them from publishing photographs of the retired judge, which may suggest a connection of the plaintiff with the said allegations.
MUZAFFARPUR SHELTER HOME CASE
In a shelter home ran under a non-governmental organization called “Sewa Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti” at Muzzafarpur, Bihar, several cases of rape, sexual abuse, and torture against girls and women staying there was reported. This was a very outrageous event and the public opinion was soon drawn against the accused. With tremendous media coverage and debates going on, High Court feared that it may interrupt the ordinary course of justice and put a blanket ban on the media for this particular case. It retrained the media from reporting on the investigation on this case due to the sensitivity of the issue.
This decision of Patna HC was challenged in the Supreme Court. Though the apex Court removed the ban on the press but it strictly asked both the print and electronic media not to sensationalize incidents of sexual abuse. The Court further restrained media to show interviews of alleged minor victims.
The apex court said “It is not a simple matter. The media goes to one complete extreme at a point. There should be a balance. You cannot say whatever you feel like saying. You cannot have media trials.”
Media is a very powerful medium to uncover any injustice or wrongdoing. It is a watchdog for the Indian democracy. Media is much more than any profit-making business, where all that people care about is profits or TRPs, in this case. It should become more responsible, more effective, and more sensitive. Law and Media can undo all the wrongs if they go hand-in-hand. Several times, a newspaper article or a media report has been taken by the Apex Court as a writ petition to provide justice to those who cannot come asking for it. But if Media keeps on stepping into the periphery of Court, nothing but chaos will be the outcome.