Media trial an antithesis to fair trial

R D Singh Bandral
With the overreach of print and electronic media in the society, the sphere of news broadcast by private news channels has also increased. Due to more privatization and commercialization of news agency, much focus is on selling news for TRPs (Television Rating points), rather than conveying to the public at large. A recent trend can be seen, where the news channels, mostly during prime time call upon panelist from different fields, whether that may be trial or investigation in some case and debate over the issue, which many times be more rhetoric, rather than reasonable and gentle.
The increase in this trend of interference by News media houses in ongoing investigation of cases or matters sub-judice before courts, not only hampers the investigation or trial, but also prejudices the life and rights of accused, in as much as life of the victim/witnesses, in one or other way. A media trial is a trial beyond application of law, mostly driven by emotional exploitation of viewers with no justice delivery in the end. This trend not only impacts a fair investigation or trial, but in many cases troubled the news anchor also, when FIRs were registered against them, whereafter, they approached the Court seeking quashment inter-alia, on the ground that, such FIR is violative of fundamental right as enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution of India, which talks about “Freedom of Speech and Expression”. But, one shall not forget that, Freedom is not absolute and is subject to restrictions as imposed in terms of Article 19(2) of the C.O.I., which also includes public order, decency/morality, defamation or incitement to offence.
At present, the infamous suicide case of Actor Sushant Singh Rajput is being debated and broadcasted in almost all prominent news channels, where even the material witnesses are called for interviews and a narrative is drawn in public, when the investigation by police in itself is at infancy stage. Now, when the situation is grimmer due to Corona pandemic cases surge in a single day or China’s intrusion, the gravity of all almost all private news channel is in SSR suicide case. This act of media, not only amounts to invasion into investigation arena, but also prejudices the rights of the accused person of fair trial, as envisaged under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Because, the Judge who will deal with the trial is also a human being and the Ex-CJI, Sh. Ranjan Gogoi, while answering the panelist of Times Now about a question in regard to impact of social media on judgments of judges has told;
” Do you think, judges come from heaven? Don’t they read social media.”
The practice of investigation through media platform, also impinges the sanctity of investigation. As the sanctity of investigation lies in it’s secrecy, which is of paramount importance and inference can be drawn from the fact that, even during investigation when competent court calls CD file of a case, as to know the stage of investigation or any other thing, it is only the Court calling the CD file has authority to scrutinize the file and not the defense lawyer. But, we have often seen that, news channel through their cameraman and journalists try to sneak peek into the place of crime and try to approach the material witnesses, which makes such evidence vulnerable, like happened in Unnao Rape case. Many times, it was also observed during ongoing counter terrorist operations, news channel reporters try to be more adventurous revealing the strategy of forces, which in turn proves to be a boon for terrorists and disaster for the one fighting against, like in 26/11 Mumbai attack, Akshardam Temple Attack.
The press media is no organ without constraints; it has too limitations and responsibilities, which needs to be taken care of, especially in the contemporary period, when mere statements can result in riots, like one happened in Delhi. As per Norms of Journalism Conduct 2010 edition, published by Press Council of India, it is guided to all the News agencies; That, they should not give excessive publicity to accused, victim witnesses, nor disclose any confidential information that may hamper investigation, nor indentify witnesses and not to run parallel trial putting undue pressure on judiciary. Moreover, investigation and trial of cases are not like elections which can be won through publicity
Since, Press is considered as virtual fourth pillar of our constitution, therefore, a greater responsibility is bestowed upon press also, to not exceed it’s jurisdiction and to play it’s role within parameters prescribed, as being exercised by other three pillars of the Constitution viz. Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. Thus, purpose of news shall be delivery of information in a fair and transparent manner, rather than projecting a particular agenda, in order hijack emotional sentiments of public for their vested interests.
The Norms of Journalistic conduct also talks about the duties of a reporter, which they have to abide by, while disseminating information in case of some trial or investigation. As per Norm 26 (G) of the said; “Norms of Journalistic conduct”, it is laid down;
“In all proceedings including the investigations, presentation and publication of the report, the investigative journalist/newspaper should be guided by the paramount principle of criminal jurisprudence, that, a person is innocent unless the offence against him is proved beyond doubt by independent, reliable evidence”
Whereas, Norm 26(F) says; “The reporter must not approach the matter or the issue under investigation, in a manner, as though he is the prosecutor or counsel for prosecution.”
But, here in the media trial of SSR, we have seen the suspect needle of Journalists during day long debates point out new persons each day, which not only smear the reputation of such persons, but also make them vulnerable. It has more negative impact, rather than positive. Floods in Bihar, Assam, fatalities due to Corona pandemic, economy slowdown, is hardly an issue anymore for most of news channel.
In USA and UK, issue of such media trials have already been dealt sternly, but in India such issues are still untouched upon, resulting in chaos. Though, Apex Court sometimes has shown dissatisfaction over the issue of media trials, but still no brace is put upon media. Like in Manu Sharma vs. State (NCT of Delhi), the Apex Court gave following observation on danger of trial by media;
” There is danger of serious risk of prejudice if the media exercises an unrestricted and unregulated freedom such that it publishes photographs of the suspects or the accused before the identification parades are constituted or if the media publishes statements which out rightly hold the suspect or the accused guilty, even before such an order has been passed by the court”
Therefore, the print and electronic media disseminating news, being an opinion making agency, need not to run a media trial while broadcasting or publishing news and shall be conscience enough of the fact that, the purpose of news is to inform public at large. However, in case of any deviation from ideal way, judicial note of the same needs to be taken.
(The author is a practicing Advocate at the High Court of J&K, Jammu.)