Media Trials in India: Is the echo of noise suppressing the rule of law?
Media trials have unfortunately become a norm in present-day India. This article critiques media trials and their terrible consequences for democracy. Introduction Media is one of the foundations of our democracy. Earlier, its role was to keep people updated with what’s going around the world but with everything evolving around us, the role of the media has not… Read More »
Media trials have unfortunately become a norm in present-day India. This article critiques media trials and their terrible consequences for democracy.
Media is one of the foundations of our democracy. Earlier, its role was to keep people updated with what’s going around the world but with everything evolving around us, the role of the media has not only changed but in fact, it has adamantly expanded and become a source which shapes people’s opinion. It has the ability to turn a villain into a hero in the blink of an eye and act as the lens through which viewers perceive any event. The sound of its mic is enough to create and destroy a person’s status in society.
The media, a public service, is supposed to be the watchdog of the society and on the other hand, the judiciary is an institution that safeguards the rights of the society. Although both of them are essential for the progress of civil society, the role of the judiciary and media should be independent of each other. However, since the past few years, the media has started interfering into court proceedings, which is evident by the investigations conducted by it in order to mould the opinion of the public.
Media has begun to see itself as ‘janta’s adalat’. It can be rightly concluded that the media has reincarnated itself into a public court and it does not just make suggestive innuendos but direct allegations. Such a policy adopted by the media these days is rightly referred to trial by the media. This kind of pre-trial affects a fair trial. Judges can easily be influenced by such media trials.
Indian judiciary in high profile cases has become a ‘circus’ and the media does not believe in anything called the law of evidence. The death of the Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, is one such high profile case where well-known celebrities are involved. The sudden demise of the late actor has become a riddle; wrapped in mystery for everyone. The whole country is eager to know the truth behind the death. The sad part of the story is that it’s a very sensitive case but has been reduced to a tamasha by the media. Everything seems to be designed for media attention.
Media Trials adding the masala element to television?
The Sushant Singh Rajput case became a centre of attention when a PIL was filed against the media trial of Rhea Chakraborty, the girlfriend of the late actor. Rhea in court said, “I have been convicted by the media in Sushant’s case.” The media is playing with facts and fighting a battle over fiction for the purpose of pushing TRPs.
Prominent media channels are running news under headlines like, ‘Sushant – a victim of Rhea’s black magic’, ‘Rhea’s drug gang’, ‘Rhea’s plotting failed’, ‘Rhea’s truth exposed’. Each day, the media comes up with a new, juicy headline. Rhea Chakraborty has been made a scapegoat and portrayed as a gold digger, drug addict, the reason for Sushant’s death and has been charged with other serious allegations on national television.
This is not the first time that the media has set up its own janta court. Some such cases are- the Aarushi Talwar murder case, 2G spectrum case, Sunanda Puskar case, Jiah Khan suicide case, etc. In the Jiah Khan suicide case, her ex-boyfriend Suraj Pancholi was accused of abetment of suicide and had to fight against the media trial. Similarly, in the Pratyusha Chatterjee suicide case, her ex-boyfriend Rahul Raj Singh had to go through the hardships of media trial.
We can say that the media has no shade of embarrassment left and can go to any extent to sensationalize the news. A reminder of this is when it called Rekha, a veteran actress, a ‘black widow’ after her husband’s death. It can be said that the media portrays the accused in such a way that the news becomes juicy and attracts views.
Effects of media trial
In a democracy, the right of free press and right of fair trial must peacefully coexist. Now when we talk about the constitutionality of media trials, there is a clash between ‘Right to freedom’ and ‘Right to life and personal liberty’. On the one hand, the media has the right to freedom and on the other, the accused also has the right to life and personal liberty.
Keeping in mind the right to freedom of media, which includes the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to freedom of practising a profession, pre-censorship of media in India is almost nil. Moreover, the right to life and the personal liberty of an individual, which includes the right to privacy and the right to live with dignity, should not be curtailed at the cost of the right to freedom of media.
In the Sushant Singh case, the media’s unfair comments are infringing the right to dignity of Rhea Chakraborty and the unfair media coverage is against her right to privacy. Reporters recorded each and every move of her and eyed her like an eagle watching its prey.
The right to a fair trial is a basic human right. To prevent the infringement of this right, the constitution gives the jurisdiction to the Supreme Court and High courts to punish people for contempt of court under A-129 and 215. A journalist may thus be liable for contempt of Court if he publishes anything which might prejudice a ‘fair trial’ or anything which impairs the impartiality of the Court to decide a cause on its merits, whether the proceedings before the Court are a criminal or civil proceeding.
During an interview given by Rhea to a prominent news channel, she pleaded for a fair trial and nothing more than that. This reflects the importance of a fair trial for the accused.
Sometimes media trials subconsciously affect the mind of the Judges. They get influenced by the prejudicial decision of the media and become biased especially, in high profile cases and hence come up with a decision that the media wants. Though the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is strictly followed in India, but in media trial cases, we see that the accused is considered guilty in the eyes of the public even before the trial by the court has begun.
The victim of the media trial is forced to go through harassment, mental agony and loses his/her status in the society. Their mental health is jeopardized owing to the fact they have been portrayed as a villain in front of the whole nation. Furthermore, not only the accused but also their family has to face a lot of mental harassment in such cases.
In Sushant’s suicide case, everyone is worried about the mental health of the deceased but nobody is taking into consideration the mental health of Rhea and her family. What about their mental health? Media trials not only adversely affect the accused but also its own reputation. The current scenario of excessive media trials can be considered as the ‘black days of journalism’ because the media is losing its dignity and credibility due to the portrayal of such fictional stories.
Suggestions and Conclusions
In a democratic country like India, the media is considered as its fourth pillar and has the power to influence the public at large. However, it’s freedom should not be absolute and the rule of law which ensures that nobody has arbitrary power applies to the media as well. There should be some reasonable restrictions on it so that it does not infringe others’ rights and the court should be the one laying down this lakshman- rekha on the media which should not be crossed.
Also, the media should keep its transparency and be unbiased as a large population has blind faith in it. It should avoid using sensational and fictional headlines to attract viewers and push TRPs. The aim of the media should not be lost in the battle of facts v fiction so that its credibility can be maintained in the eyes of the people.
Lastly, there should be some mechanisms to take action against such media trials. As recommended by the 200th Report of the Law Commission titled ‘Trial by Media: Free Speech and Fair Trial under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973’, prohibition should be made on publication of anything that is prejudicial towards the accused — a restriction that shall operate from the time of the arrest. It also recommends that the High Court be empowered to direct postponement of publication or telecast of news in criminal cases.
Author(s): Ayushi Choudhary & Apeksha Tyagi
Students (IInd Year), National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi