Author: Aamina Rafeek, III year of B.Com., LL.B. from Government Law College, Ernakulam
Media plays a significant role in the dissemination of information and the shaping of opinions. Debates and discussions held on that platform provide a multidimensional view on an issue. The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 and freedom of the press is implied in it. But our right ends where another person’s nose begins, which is purposely forgotten by majority. With the passage of time the media has reincarnated itself into public courts interfering into court proceedings. In its race to top the TRP charts, many media houses distort facts and sensationalise the news, which altogether creates a different impression in minds of people regarding its actuality.
The expression has turned into prosecution. Media trials became a popular phrase during the early 21st century. It leads to the creation of a certain perception about the accused, declaring him guilty even before the court’s final verdict. As a result, people spit hate on the accused, drags his family into it and tarnishes anything and everything associated with him in the name of justice. Prejudicial approach from the media's side can prove to be fatal, inciting violence among people.
Stories of consequences of media trial date back to the 1921 case of Roscoe Arbuckle, an American silent actor who was accused of rape and murder of an aspiring actress Virginia Rappe[i]. The court later found him not guilty but was blacklisted from movies and lost reputation in society as the media scandalised the issue declaring him a rapist and murderer, making his life thereafter extremely difficult. Even while discussing the detrimental impacts of the media, some of its groundbreaking interventions to provide justice cannot be disregarded. In the UK case of Stephen Downing, who was convicted for murder at the age of 17, a local newspaper editor's report was a successful appeal which leads to his release 27 years after conviction[ii]. In the Jessica Lal Murder Case, the SMS campaign “Justice for Jessica” launched by NDTV in the aftermath of the acquittal of accused in 2006 led to a reversal of verdict and conviction of the guilty[iii]. But in the long run, such investigation and trials by the media can destabilize rules established by law and result in various errors.
India has witnessed mass media trials targeting the accused and creating hysteria among the public in many cases, presently in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, where the media themselves were involved in circulating several conspiracy theories against the accused. Baseless primetime ratings, however, captivated the audience and shot up TRPs making the pandemic period fruitful for media houses.
Every accused is entitled to the right of a fair trial. Even though the media has a right and duty to report the crime and discuss on it, any publication which interferes with or obstructs or tends to obstruct court proceedings, be it civil or criminal, and the course of justice, which is a pending proceeding, amounts to contempt of court under Contempt of Court Act 1971. But whenever cases including either horrific sexual violence or a high profile celebrity as accused or victim, media have voluntarily taken the matter into their hands and adorned position of the judiciary. Scandalising and prejudicing trials in this manner is contempt of court and violation of principles of natural justice.
Since the media can largely influence the minds of masses, false propaganda from their part for the sake of justice to the victim denies the fundamental rights of the accused. This is hypocrisy in the name of democracy. In the 2008 Noida double murder case ( Aarushi Talwar case), the media’s declaration of her parents as murderers even before the commencement of actual trial broke loose all hell, putting the accused in danger of attack[iv]. The rumours of an alleged sexual relationship between the teenager Aarushi and her servant Hemanth, the alleged extramarital affair of accused Dr.Rajesh Talwar etc. provided the basis for yellow journalism to thrive. Questions on the victim's character and personal aspects of the family which had no legal significance as to the case were widely promoted.
Societal pressure is exerted on lawyers not to represent the accused which violates the latter’s right to legal representation. Witness statements can also be affected due to the stigma against the accused. Irresponsible reporting which publishes the identity of witnesses put their lives in danger. They may come under pressure from the accused and his accomplices. Fear of backlash from society prevents many from coming forward and giving genuine witness statements in favour of the accused. This hesitancy hampers the purpose of a justice delivery system.
It is to be noted that a judge must decide on a case based on the facts and evidence presented and examined in the court. Whatever said and shown outside the court must not influence the judgement. But judges too are human beings whose minds cannot completely ignore speculations. Judges are likely to be subconsciously influenced by media publicity which tends to manipulate the verdict. There are high chances of the case going off tangent.
Throughout the media trial, victims and their families too are exposed to excess publicity in the name of justice, which is a serious invasion of their right to privacy. They are pressured into giving interviews at inappropriate times and their lives thereafter come under public scrutiny. Even though the media helps a victim gain support by sharing their story, over sensationalising can lead to re-victimisation of the victim. It robs them of their right to grieve and restore themselves in private.
The bias against the accused slowly extends to his family, friends and community. In the O. J. Simpson case of 1994, despite the Los Angeles County Court's verdict acquitting the accused who was a black, the media trials which had already declared him guilty opened huge racial differences in LA. The black community faced oppression and discrimination from the white major police department of LA. Similarly, the Kolkata police initiated the probe after receiving complaints from Bengali women who were trolled online, called witch,
gold diggers and black magicians in the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput's death where the prime accused Rhea Chakraborty is a native of West Bengal[v]. So it is evident that media trials have also led to a reaffirmation of age-old stereotypes.
Limitless interference by media on investigation exerts much pressure on the police officials to fasten the process and reach a conclusion. This can lead to the arrest of innocent people to shut the media. A parallel investigation by the media can potentially leak out sensitive information which may be advantageous for the escape of guilt. It also lowers the self-esteem of police officials.
A strong media and independent judiciary are indispensable aspects of a democratic state. So it is necessary to strike a balance between the two so that they do not intervene in each other's spheres unreasonably. Regulations of media content by courts are often disputed. It kills the purpose of an independent press. But reasonable regulations are necessary to curb possibilities of violence among people as a result of sensationalism. Media houses must strictly follow self-regulation. The Press Council Of India regulates content in printed media. The News Broadcasters Association has devised a Code of Ethics to regulate television content. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), of the NBA, is empowered to warn, censure, express disapproval and fine the broadcaster a sum up to Rs.1 lakh for violation of the ethics code. Another such organization is the Broadcast Editors’ Association. The Advertising Standards Council of India has also drawn up guidelines on the content of advertisements. These groups govern through agreements and do not have any statutory powers.
But a lack of enforcement of stringent policies said above is truly reflective in the present media actions and this needs to be taken seriously because “Justice must not only be done but also seen to be done”[vi].
[i]Jude Sheerin, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle
and Hollywood’s first scandal, BBC News, Washington, 3rd September 2011 https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14640719
[ii] Dave Wade, Don Hale: One Man's Fight for Justice, BBC News Washington, 26th January 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-derbyshire-38581779
[iii] Sonia Singh, Behind NDTV's campaign for Jessica Lal, NDTV, 29th June 2017, https://www.ndtv.com/book-excerpts/behind-ndtvs-campaign-for-jessica-lal-by-sonia-singh-1425893
[iv]State of UP through CBI v. Rajesh Talwar and Another R. C. No.1(S)/2008/SCR-III/CBI/NEW DELHI U/ss 302 r/w Section 34, 201 r/w Section 34 & 203 I.P.C.
[v]No, Bengali women don’t know Black Magic, stop the misogyny, The Quint, 7th August 2020, https://youtu.be/3TtPfvkH01A
[vi]Lord Hewart, Rex v. Sussex Justices, (1924) 1 KB 256.