Media Trials – Impinging the Right to Fair Trial
NAME: Kirandeep Kaur
DESIGNATION: Law student, School of Law, UPES
CONTACT NUMBER: 981*******
E-MAIL ADDRESS: email@example.com
The prevalence of an independent judiciary, as well as a free press, are essentials in a constitutional democracy. With the advent of cable television, radio networks, and the internet, it has greatly enhanced the reach and impact of mass media. Contrary to Western nations, the circulation of newspapers and magazines has also been continuously growing in India on account of rapidly increasing literacy levels. Media organisations play an unprecedented role in shaping opinions & preferences, such as the result of expanding readership and viewership. “Freedom of the press” has been the most debatable and controversial topic over the period of time. With the increasing use of media nowadays, it has been a point of concern that the accused is held guilty even before the order or judgement has been passed by the court.
Trials by the media instead of giving a helping hand to the Judiciary's endeavour to ensure justice for all are impinging upon the elementary right of the accused to get a fair trial. These media trials always ride on the wave of public sentiment and normally pronounce the guilt of the accused in sub-judice matters. This acts as a prejudice to the accused who has a right to a fair trial. Media have become a source of manipulating public opinion by besmirching the reputations of individuals involved in the process of investigation in a case that is nothing but a trial by the media. The use of electronic media by the investigating arm of the State to influence public opinion during the pendency of an investigation subverts the fairness of the investigation.
The role of pervasive television coverage, in particular, has been questioned in many settings, the most recent example being the Farmers’ protest. Social media platforms are filled up with updates regarding the protest that has been on its form since November 2020. The main issue during this time was ‘Misinformation’, ‘fake news’ which appears to be a substantial problem in India. India has more of a domestic misinformation problem as compared to other nations, involving major political parties and associated “cyber-army” groups. There is no specific provision in Indian law dealing with fake news. However, there are several offences in the Indian Penal Code that criminalise certain forms of speech that may be relevant to fake news and may apply to online or social media content, including the crimes of sedition and promoting enmity between different groups. Information Technology Act, 2000 regulates electronic commerce and provides for certain cybercrimes.
Fake news spread over WhatsApp, India’s most popular messaging platform has been of particular concern. A large density of population believes what they read via WhatsApp messages even after giving repeated reminders to not to spread information that is inappropriate. According to one BBC report, WhatsApp had become “a vehicle for misinformation and propaganda” where both the governing parties were accused of “spreading false or misleading information” ahead of the 2019 general election.
Freedom of expression is mentioned in the preamble and the right is protected under Article 19 of the Indian constitution. However, such a right is not absolute and is subject to “reasonable restrictions”.
Presumptions of the innocence of an accused is a legal presumption and should not be destroyed at the very threshold through the process of media trials. In Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), the Apex court has extensively observed the danger of trial by media, it opined that there is a danger of serious risk of prejudice if the media exercises unrestricted and unregulated freedom or if the media publishes statements which wholly hold the suspect or the accused guilty even before such an order has been passed by the court.
Even the Press Council of India has prescribed “The Norms of Journalistic Conduct”, which states that the press shall eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, misleading, or distorted material.
Assuming the role of the investigator to try to prejudice the court against any person, no such right be granted to the editor. In a nation like ours, people base their opinion on what they see or read on social media platforms. In cases where leading celebrities are involved, the influence of the media could drastically change the opinion of the people. One such example has been Rhea Chakraborty v. the State of Bihar, 2020 (Sushant Singh Rajput Death Case) media played a crucial role and the issue of media trial was raised by the accused.
Way before this - Arushi Talwar Murder Case (2008), Jessica Lal case (2010), Priyadarshini Matto case (2006), Bijal Joshi Rape Case (2003), etc. are the best examples of the famous media trial cases.
Media trials often provoke the atmosphere of mob lynching or influence the perception of the general public but it also plays a very significant role in molding the mindset of the present generation. This needs to be regulated and it should be noted that no legal system gives power to the media to try a case. It has been and will always be in the hands of the Judiciary to grant justice to the aggrieved and detention to the accused.
Notes and Comments: Cameras in Indian Courtrooms: A Bliss or a Misery? — Learning from the American Experience, (2008) 1 NUJS L Rev 345 at page 356
Romila Thapar v. Union of India, (2018) 10 SCC 753 : (2019) 1 SCC (Cri) 638 : 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1691 at page 793
Kevin Ponniah, WhatsApp: The ‘Black Hole’ of Fake News in India’s Election, BBC News (Apr. 6, 2019), https://perma.cc/5YJS-ZH2A
(2010) 6 SCC 1, 110-11, paras 297-98: (2010) 2 SCC (Cri) 1385.
Norms of Journalistic Conduct (2010 Edn., Press Council of India).