By Kiranjeet Kaur
Mass & Media has considered the fourth most important pillar of a Democracy and the very reason behind its importance in society is that it makes people politically, socially, and economically aware of their surroundings and also broadens an individual’s imagination and their ability to think, to rationalize, to formulate, to influence and also helps to develop one’s perception about various things happening on a daily basis in our society. It also helps in building one’s ability to decide upon what is wrong and right by being suggestive, opinionated, and conclusive to some of the root problems prevailing in our society. It is more like bringing the entire world within our reach and connects us to the foreign world with our access to international news by not just making us aware of our own surroundings but also to what has been happening beyond borders, and it is the Media here that deserves all the credit. But today’s scenario is completely different as media no longer adequately performs the primary functions as it is meant to, which gives it public legitimacy: namely, informing the public, telling the truth, analyzing complex social, economic and political processes, providing a platform for public debate, acting as the people’s watchdog or conscience and the most common objective of creating awareness amongst the masses regarding various issues, as it is rightly argued by Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese monk) that “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed” but somehow things seem to be degrading day by day and has ultimately led to a big fall in the standards of media today. Too obvious politically biased reporting has decreased the ability to connect with the audience, caused unnecessary tunnel vision, loss of diversity and quality and biased censorship. These are probably some of the major causes behind its fall in standards. Similarly, Trial by Media OR Media Trial is one such phenomenon which is supposedly an outcome, or we can say the biggest flaw of media today. ‘Trial by media’ is a phrase that has been used popularly in the last few decades to describe the impact of television and print media coverage on a case by an attempt made by the media of holding the accused guilty even prior to his trial and regardless of any verdict in the court of law. The Indian Constitution under its Article 19(1)(a) grants freedom of speech and expression to its citizens. The freedom of press is a necessary element of the freedom of expression that involves a right to receive and impart information without which democracy becomes an empty slogan. But this right is not absolute and is subjected to reasonable restrictions of defamation and contempt of court among others mentioned in clause (2) of the abovementioned article.
In an increasingly competitive market for grabbing the attention of viewers and readers, media reports often turn to distortion of facts and sensationalizing of issues. The pursuit of commercial interests also motivates the use of intrusive newsgathering practices which tend to impede the privacy of the people who are the subject of such coverage. The problem finds its worst manifestation when the media extensively covers sub judice matters by publishing information and opinions that are clearly prejudicial to the interests of the parties involved in litigation pending before the Courts.
The history of the Media Trial dates back to the 20th century when Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle an American silent film actor and a comedian had to go through a trial by media and as a result of it, he lost his career and reputation due to the media coverage. It is truly a case where the promotion of the media coverage in the public mind was pretty much above the status of the court. A similar thing happened in India- matters took a turn when Jasleen Kaur a woman from Delhi posted a photo of a man named Sarvjeet Singh on Facebook and accused him of sexually harassing her back in 2015. The post went viral and took the entire social media to a storm and gained widespread attention and support from many of the celebrities from Bollywood and including Delhi’s own Chief Minister Mr. Arvind Kejriwal who praised Miss Kaur for her act of bravery and raising her voice against eve-teasing and sexual harassment against women and became an idol and a true flagbearer of FEMINISM for many overnight. Singh was arrested on charges of sexual harassment the next day. The following day, Singh posted bail. Indian media, including national news channels, labelled Singh with titles such as a “National Pervert” and “Delhi ka Darinda” meaning Delhi’s predator. A few days after the incident, an eyewitness vouched for Singh’s innocence which brought credibility to Singh’s account. In 2019, an Indian Court acquitted Singh of all the charges and he was held innocent. In my opinion, it would be more apt to say that the abovementioned case was truly a case of cyber defamation as the definition itself speaks for it as defamation means “The offence of injuring a person’s character, fame, or reputation by false and malicious statements”. A man’s reputation is considered as a valuable property and every man has a right to protect his reputation. This right is acknowledged as an inherent personal right and is a jus in rem that is a right good against all persons in the world. According to reports, Sarvjeet’s life was ruined to such an extent that he couldn’t find a stable job due to his ‘criminal record’. There is no doubt that people like Sarvjeet have undergone irreparable loss and a mere apology is not a justified solution to his tarnished reputation as the incident created hatred against him amongst the right thinking people of the society and also the humiliation he had to undergo while he was kept under police custody as the Delhi Police proceeded to arrest Sarvjeet within a day’s time with no attempt made to investigate the other side of the story and not to forget that media had played such an important role here and was completely responsible for hyping the issue and sensationalizing it by means of labelling him with defamatory titles and no doubt it was the hype created by media which led the lethargic legal system in India to take such quick action on the issue and one needs to remember that half a truth can lead to disastrous consequences which media had seemed to done in Jasleen Kaur harassment controversy.
Recently, a division bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh of the Delhi High Court declined to entertain a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed before it seeking directions against the media trails of wrestler Sushil Kumar in the Chhatrasal Stadium murder case. The counsel for the petitioner moved court stating that, Kumar’s reputation and career had been “completely sabotaged by the sensationalized reporting by several media channels in the matter. He attributed this to the fact that while “there are many judgements of the Supreme Court (on media trails),” “in no case have any guidelines been laid down about reporting in criminal matters.” The plea had sought directions to restrain the media trail of Sushil Kumar, saying that his career, reputation, and dignity had raffled by the media with help of the Delhi Police. The plea stated that the media trail would cause prejudice to his ‘free and fair trail’ which is his fundamental right under the Constitution.
The petitioners thereby sought directions to the center and Delhi Police for making standard rules for reporting in criminal cases by considering the right of the accused and to restrain the media trial. In the case of State of Maharashtra v. Rajendra Jawanmal Gandhi, 1997, the Supreme Court held that a trial by electronic media, press or by way of public agitation is anti-thesis to the rule of law and can lead to a miscarriage of justice. In the case of Vijay Singhal and Ors. vs. Govt. of NCT of Delhi and Anr., 2013, it was held by the Court that the trials’ objective is to meet the ends of justice, and if, there is a competition to meet that end between the right to freedom of expression against the right to a free trial, the right to free trial would Trump upon the right to freedom of expression. The Supreme Court and High Court in many judgments have criticized the trial by the media on the sub-judice matter as it prejudices the opinion of the judge or the jury on that case and sometimes even on similar cases later. The Press Council of India has also prescribed in their 2010 edition of Norm of Journalism Conduct to abstain from performing such sensational journalism.
The power and importance of media in today’s life cannot be denied as it has the power of changing and influencing the public opinion at large with its rigorous coverage on various deep root as well as emerging issues in our society as the freedom of press is a necessary element of the freedom of expression that involves a right to receive and impart information without which democracy cannot be enjoyed in its true sense but there exists a constant tussle between an individual’s right to freedom of speech (Article 19) and his legitimate right to seek a fair trial in the court of law (This is part of the right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.), both the rights guaranteed to its citizens by its supreme Constitution. But somehow, we fail to accept that no right is an absolute right and is subject to reasonable restriction- failure of similar mechanism germinates the issue of Trial by Media in modern day context. Media has now reincarnated itself into a ‘public court’ which can also be referred as ‘Janta Adalat’ and has started interfering into court proceedings so much so that it pronounces its own verdict even before the court does. Its not that media trial has always been bad but in cases such as that of murder of Delhi based model Jessica Lal back in 1999 proves that the exclusive media coverage and hyping and the sensationalizing of the case by media back then was probably the major reason behind the arrest of convict of the murder Siddharth Vashisht, also known as Manu Sharma, the son of Vinod Sharma, a wealthy and influential Congress-nominated Member of Parliament from Haryana was arrested. Well it was a great achievement by the media to get such influential people with strong political background behind the bars who often misuse their power and get away with hasty judicial and legislation procedures but it’s not like the same story gets repeated every time as it was seen in Aarushi Talwar case where extreme trials by media were carried out even to the point where her own parents were suspected of killing their own daughter where no strong evidence proving the fact lies and mainly interfered in the ongoing investigation of the police. In a sense, media has forgot to maintain a vital gap between that of an accused and a convict and this could result in criminals being free in the society and innocent behind the bars which is completely unacceptable.
Constant attempts have been made by Judiciary to make Media realize their limitations while covering such cases. Recently, Delhi Court slammed Media for publishing news against Umar Khalid without verifying all facts in Delhi Riots Case observing that ‘Reputation is a facet of article 21’. Strict laws should be undertaken to regulate the media and should be reminded of their limitations from time to time and should maintain the dignity of such noble profession as it is truly stated by Socrates that “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil” the same implies to media as investigations that are carried out by them must be unbiased and not one-sided, each and every minute detail of the issue (accuracy) should be within the knowledge of the correspondents to avoid biases and one-sided investigation. Too sensational, provocative titles and headlines should be strictly avoided to avoid any sort of violence which leads to a great amount of pressure on the Judiciary to reach a right and concrete decision and acts as a hindrance in providing justice without being prejudiced. In the end, Media is referred to as the “eyes and ears of the general public” and forms the backbone of our society and therefore it is the responsibility of the media to show its audience what is solely correct because it is ultimately the media that people follow blindly and accepts the truth of the news published by media, therefore it becomes the responsibility of media to maintain its standards and enjoy the supreme position that it had been enjoying till today.
 Trial by media a threat to administration of justice (www.lexology.com)  The growing crisis of credibility of the Indian media (transnationalinstitute)  Constitutionality of Media Trials in India: A Detailed Analysis (academike)  Blog.ipleaders.in
Author- Kiranjeet Kaur
B.A. -LL..B (H), (3rd semester)
College - Xavier Law School, XIM University, Bhubaneswar