Author: Dewanshi Agarwal, 1st year student in NUSRL, Ranchi.
MEDIA TRIALS: ARE THEY FAIR?
Media has been given the status of being the fourth pillar of our democracy. It is so for various reasons. Media plays an essential role in shaping minds and opinions of people. Not only is it capable of shaping one’s point of view, but also changing it. It is an expert in manipulating people. In the present scenario, with so much advancement in technology, media has become so much more than just giving information about an event. It can start a trend and even bring an accused in the lime light.
Media trial or trial by media portrays the effect of an individual’s reputation by media coverage on platforms like televisions and newspapers. It creates an extensive insight of the responsibility of wrongdoing regardless of the verdict of the court of law. Its foundation can be tracked down to 20th century. The phrase “Media Trials” derived its meaning from the case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In 1921, a silent film comedian Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested in the crime of rape and murder of an actress and model named Virginia Rappé. Though he was proved innocent and later acquitted by the court, he lost his reputation along with his job after he was declared “guilty” by the media.
Transcend of media through technology has made it easier for the media to reach more and more people. This outreach makes more people aware about the event and happenings of the world. Media disentangle mystified situations and events for the audience to make them understand things better. They can even do the job of, as aforementioned, bringing a criminal in front of the world. It is not a hidden fact how rich and powerful people sometimes get away with their deeds without any punishment. High profiled people escape trials by bribing some police officials who then do not file any report against them but media keeps an eye on such activities like a watchdog and make it harder for such people to escape and further pressurise the authorities to take action.
We are well aware how influential and impactful media is but it comes with certain and solemn drawbacks as well. The world has become competitive in every aspect and so has media, especially television news channels. It has entered a competition as well – the race of TRP, i.e., Television Rating Point. Every channel wants to be on the top. Sense has become sensation – the race has blinded media which further blinds the ones under its influence, i.e., the audience.
Media sometimes exaggerates a news piece to draw more audience towards it. It can also be biased. They might show the public only one side of the story, the side they support or are affiliated to. They are outstanding at brainwashing people with fake or unauthentic information only to fulfil their own agendas or for money. Media sometimes stoop so low that they even cook up their own stories in the name of theories to grab more attention and earn more money. They generally do not have authentic evidence which might lead them to accuse a wrong person during media trials which in turn play with that person’s reputation as it happened with Roscoe Arbuckle. No matter what the verdict of the court is, the reputation of the person gets destroyed. Media trials hamper the administration of courts as well. The huge outreach of media and its influence on people sometimes make it much more difficult for the judges to take the right decision as media trials interfere with the court proceedings. Media takes a “decision” and widely publicise it such that even the common public starts to believe in it and finds it difficult to accept if the verdict of the court is different.
Media gets this power of doing trials through the right of speech and expression authorised by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court stated in the case of Express Newspaper (Private) Ltd. & Anr. v Union of India & Ors, 1959 SCR 12 : AIR 1958 SC 578 : (1961) 1 LLJ 339, “the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas which freedom is ensured by the freedom of circulation and that the liberty of the press is an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression and that liberty of the press consists in allowing no previous restraint upon publication.” It was also held by the Supreme Court in Brij Bhushan v the State NCT of Delhi, 1950 SCR 605 : AIR 1950 SC 129 : (1950) 51 Cri LJ 1525 that the pre-censorship of a journal was an unreasonable restriction on the liberty of the press.
Freedom of press allows the public to access unmodified information and many kinds of opinions which shapes the way they think about a particular matter. However, this freedom is not absolute as some restrictions are quoted under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. Courts have also kept the right under check by putting certain restrictions. In R.K. Anand v Registrar, Delhi High Court, (2009) 8 SCC 106: (2010) 2 SCC (Cri) 563, court held that the free speech did not include the right to publish any report concerning a matter before the court or to carry out sting operations on a matter which is concerning a pending trial. In the very popular and highly publicised case of the murder of Jessica Lal or Siddharth Vashisht @ Manu Sharma v State NCT of Delhi, (2010) 6 SCC 1 : (2010) 2 SCC (Cri) 1385, the Court said that media trials should not create obstacles for fair investigations held by the investigating agencies and also do not prejudice the right of defence of the accused as it will lead to mockery of justice if it causes hindrance in the formal and accepted judicious and fair investigation and trial. Justice Gopal Rao Ekbote (He was the Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh when this case was decided) stated in Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram, 1973 SCC OnLine AP 145 : AIR 1975 AP 30 : (1973) 2 AP LJ (SN 1) 76: “When litigation is pending before a Court, no one shall comment on it in such a way there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the action, as for instance by influence on the Judge, the witnesses or by prejudicing mankind in general against a party to the cause. Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a contempt of Court if he prejudices the truth before it is ascertained in the proceedings. To this general rule of fair trial one may add a further rule and that is that none shall, by misrepresentation or otherwise, bring unfair pressure to bear on one of the parties to a cause so as to force him to drop his complaint or defence.” In the case of Sushil Sharma v The State (Delhi Administration) and Ors, 1996 SCC OnLine Del 345 : ILR (1997) 1 Del 42 : 1996 Cri LJ 3944, media portrayed the accused as murderer even when the case was pending in court. So, Delhi High Court held that the conviction of any person will only be based on facts of the case and not because media had declared or wanted to declare the person guilty.
The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides shelter to publications under trials against contempt proceedings but if any such publication interferes with the court proceedings, it would be constituted as contempt.
We can clearly see how media trials impact not only the common people, but also the court proceedings. While certain rights have been given to the media under the Indian Constitution, courts have also kept media under check whenever it has tried to cross the limits of the rights provided to it and put the rights of others under threat. The author believes that media should stick to providing information to the audience and should not take justice into its own hands. Media should let the courts do their work without any hindrance and also should not hamper the rights of any person. It should run trials only in a limited manner – only to the extent of not affecting the official court proceedings. However, a question still remains – Should media be allowed to do trials? Will restricting media from conducting trials hide the culprits from the eyes of the public and help them get away with their deeds? Or will it allow court proceedings to run smoothly? Are media trials really fair?
1. All Answers Ltd. November 2018, Effect of Trial by Media Before Courts, LAWTEACHER (December 10, 2020), https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/commercial-law/effect-of-trial-by-media-before-courts-law-essay.php.
2. Diva Rai, Constitutionality of Media Trials, IPLEADERS (December 10, 2020), https://blog.ipleaders.in/constitutionality-of-media-trials-and-landmark-cases/.
3. Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Pros and Cons of Trial by Media, THE TIMES OF INDIA (December 9, 2020), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/straight-candid/pros-and-cons-of-trial-by-media/.
4. Raghav Tankha, Where does Press Freedom End and Trial by Media Begin?, THE WIRE (December 9, 2020), https://thewire.in/media/press-freedom-trial-by-media-supreme-court.