Introduction – Media Trial
British Member of Parliament, Lord Macaulay, had, years ago, called the media “the fourth pillar of democracy”. It has since been quoted often, and a free media is considered indispensable in a democracy. But the media today isn’t what it was then. Multiple factors have led to media organizations compromising their journalistic ethics and principles which harms the nation in a big way. The most prominent example would be the recent rise of the debate on the media’s reporting and handling of ongoing cases and trials. There have been multiple cases where the media has roused the public out of their usual apathy and forced the sluggish authorities to act. But at the same time, the media has also been criticized on multiple occasions of conducting what is called a media trial, where the media portrays the accused as guilty, long before the courts reach a decision. This poses a huge obstacle to a free and fair trial.
This article attempts to look at the role played by the media so far as its status as the fourth pillar of democracy and it’s relationship with the judiciary.
Media has the power to bring about change
There have been numerous cases where the media has succeeded in bringing about change. The media, through it’s consistent and adamant reporting, forces the public to protest and demand action. It is a powerful influencer as it speaks directly to the public and can shape opinions. The Jessica Lal murder case is a strong example. The accused, Manu Sharma, was the son of Vinod Sharma, a wealthy and influential Congress MP from Haryana. Sharma tried to use his power to manipulate the case and did succeed initially ( evidence was destroyed, 32 witnesses had turned “hostile). The Delhi High Court was forced to acquit Sharma on grounds of lack of evidence. The acquittal resulted in a huge backlash throughout the nation which was helped on by the media. Sabrina Lal, Jessica Lal’s sister, in an interview with Daily News and Analysis, said, “ The media proved to be an extremely powerful force that came to our aid…It was the power of the media that enabled us to get justice…Had it not been for the media, people would have never known about how a family is being denied justice”.
A recent example is the Unnao rape case where the accused is Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a BJP MLA from Unnao. The case was originally filed on June 4, 2017, but no action was taken. On 5 April 2018, the woman’s father was arrested and put in custody after he was, allegedly, assaulted and beaten by Sengar’s supporters. No action was taken here too. Four days later, the woman attempted to immolate herself outside the residence of CM Yogi Adityanath. The case, along with, the Kathua rape case made national headlines and joint protests were held demanding action in both cases.
The flip side
In the Akshay Kumar- starer ‘Rustom’, based on the famous K.M. Nanavati vs the State of Maharashtra case, the journalist Erich Billimoria, played by Kumud Mishra, creates a positive public image of Rustom (Akshay Kumar) and manipulates the jury. Here, the journalist was key to the way the case turned out since it seems that without his efforts, the jury would have held Rustom guilty. In the movie, Billimoria was responsible what is today called a ‘media trial’ – when the media portrays the accused as guilty or innocent, even as the trial is going on. Such a portrayal is said to greatly manipulate the case as it builds a popular public opinion, and can even influence the judge.
After the airing of the controversial documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, the Delhi HC bench hearing the case observed that media trials tend to influence judges by creating a subconscious pressure. The bench said that they weren’t against the documentary but believed that it should have been released after the Supreme Court had reached a verdict.
The reporting of the Noida double murder is another case where the media faced a lot of criticism. Dr. Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were portrayed as guilty of the murder of their daughter and a servant, even though there was no such statement by the police and no conclusive evidence available.
The threat of media trials is very real. Media organizations, under the guise of “hardcore journalism”, sensationalize carefully and strategically picked cases. The media’s portrayal goes a long way in swaying public opinion, and even judges aren’t immune to manipulation. An important factor here is the pattern of media ownership which decides what the media focuses on and what it ignores. Even the Supreme Court, which has always been a supporter of freedom of press and the media, was concerned about the issue of media trials, and eventually set guidelines on how the media can report on-going trials and cases
The importance of a free press and a strong media in a true democracy is undeniable. No democracy can work without an effective media in place. The media has a lot of power, and if the power is misused, it can severely harm a nation. No external body can be set up to check the media as that would be a threat to its freedom and so the onus of responsibility falls on the media professionals themselves to check themselves and ensure that they aren’t doing more harm than good. At the same time, the general public should also be more media literate and understand fact from fiction.
By – Sakshi Shivpuri
St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai
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