For more than three months now the press is widely covering the day to day developments in late actor Sushant Singh Rajput Case. This case started off as a mere case of suicide, but since then has taken sensational turn of events. The general public is very much hooked in the process of attaining justice, as they believe in the presence of foul play. The curiosity of the public has led the media houses to display every aspect of information it comes across. The information at times does not have anything to do factually with the case or any reliability to it in the court of law. It is difficult to say how media’s role will impact this case at large as it is too raw to decide. But owing to previous cases which have been widely discussed in the media, we can draw a parallel to decide the positive and negative impact that the media trial has on criminal justice system.
The role of free press in a democratic set up like India is crucial. It has not been explicitly mentioned under the constitution of India. The Hon’ble Supreme court through its judgements have emphasised freedom of speech which includes reporting by the press as a fundamental right under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. This right is not absolute, it comes with limitations accorded under article 19(2) of the Constitution. This right is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy, due to its power to be the voice of people and the watchdog of the society. With the development of technology, the reach of mass media has expanded to the nooks and corner of the country. The press has an undeniable power to mould the opinion of the people through its reporting. Hence the freedom of speech of the press comes with huge baggage of responsibility. Over the years with the widespread reporting of high-profile criminal cases, the question as to the co-existence of the freedom of speech and fair trial has come under the scanner.
Media Trial V Freedom of Speech
Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution grants its citizens the freedom of speech and expression where one can express his opinions and convictions. The freedom of press has been derived through several judgement where the courts have recognized the importance and need for freedom of speech of the press. In Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras the court held that
“Freedom of speech of the press lays the foundation for all the democratic organisation because without the free discussion no public education, so essential for proper functioning of the process of the government is possible. Freedom of such amplitude has high possibility of abuse, but the framers of the said constitution may have reflected that it is better to leave few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth rather than pruning them away”
In R Rajagopal v. State of T.N the court held that the media houses within the ambit of 19(1)(a), have the right to engage in isolated debates involving public figures with respect to public issues, however with respect to their life in private, a balance has to be struck between freedom of speech of the press and the public figures right to privacy. This judgement strictly prohibits the media’s freedom of speech from encroaching into ones right to privacy. Unfortunately, this line is mostly crossed to develop a more convincing story that would keep the masses hooked.
Media Trial V Fair Trial
The right to fair trial is one of the most important underlying principles in the Criminal justice system. Our country follows an adversary system of criminal justice. It basically means that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt until which the accused is presumed to be innocent. This has been derived from a Latin maxim,‘eiincumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negate’.
In the case of Zahira Habibullah & ors v. State of Gujrat the supreme court held that a fair trial means a trial which is tried by an impartial and independent judge, a fair prosecutor and in a surrounding of judicial calm. The hon’ble court, went on to explain that a denial of fair trial is injustice like that of the injustice caused to the victim.
In the case State of Maharashtra v. Champala Punjaji Shah the court held that the Right to Fair Trial comes within the scope of article 21, which is the fundamental right to life and liberties under the constitution.
Under article 129 and article 215 of the constitution, and Contempt of Courts Act,1971 there are certain restrains that have been imposed on media publication or reporting, on the merits of the cases that are pending before the court of law.
CSI effect is a term coined in the United States of America based on a forensic science television show Crime Scene investigation (CSI). The people of USA are actively present in the criminal justice system as jurors. It was observed that there was a superficial expectation from the trial and evidences based on an hour Television show. Based on the CSI effect, it was observed that various factors influenced the juror’s decision in criminal case; firstly, the number of hours a juror viewed the crime and justice program, secondly, the sole priority was placed on forensic evidence, lastly the rate of conviction in the absence of scientific evidence dropped considerably. The main reason of analysing the CSI effect is to draw a parallel of how certain things projected in a public platform impacts the way a person interprets the matter. When media continuously sheds light on its version of criminal case it automatically creates a bias, this is something unwarranted in a criminal justice system. Most of the criminal justice system across the world stands on the hands of impartial jurors. The continuous flow of information and opinions will create a bias in the minds of the jury even before it accorded an opportunity to hear both the sides effected by the case. In India though we do not have a jury system, we cannot ignore the fact that the judge is also a human being and the overload of opinions can influence the way he sees the case. Apart from this, we can for sure say that, the larger public is influenced and they consider themselves as the armchair judges based on what they see in the news. They decide the guilt or otherwise of the accused even before the court can arrive at a decision on close examination. This kind of reporting will affect the trust of the people on the justice system if the court’s judgement is contrary to that of the armchair judges. Moreover, even if the accused is proved to be innocent, the presumption of the general public will still consider him as guilty which in itself is no less an injustice.
Impact of Media Trial in India
India is a diverse country. Majority of the population are illiterate and are not aware of the laws of the land and their rights which they are entitled to. In such a scenario the role of the media is crucial in informing the general public. It has been noticed that there is exploitation of the weaker sections of the society by few powerful people. Combination of the former and the later has led to suppression of many illegal activities by the high and mighty in society. In these cases, the role of the press in exposing such activities plays vital role. The one instance where the press has exposed a powerful exploiter is in the UNAO rape case. In this case without the intervention of the press, the accused who was a powerful politician belonging to the ruling dispensation would have walked scot free. The victim in this scenario would have been completely deprived of any access to justice. The other landmark case where the press played a vital role is the famously known Nirbhaya rape case. Here the role of the press in bringing into public domain the gravity and heinousness of the crime led to legislative changes. It bought in stringent punishments and ensured that the case was taken to logical ends, where the accused were tied and ultimately found guilty.
The constant race of the press to be first and sell the best stories to increase their TRP (Television Rating point) has the tendency to hamper the rights of fair trial of the accused in high profile cases. One such case which attracted media attention and spot light was the murder case of Aarushi Talwar. Even before investigation was completed and the accused had their day in court, the media proclaimed the parents of Aarushi guilty. The trial court convicted the Talwars and it is unknown as to how much the media trial influenced the said judgement of conviction, especially in the light of the fact that the appellate court acquitted the Talwars on appeal, by holding that there was no substantial evidence to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Despite their acquittal fact that they spent four year in the prison is the travesty of justice. In case of Uma Khurana a fake sting operation conducted on a national platform by one of the media houses; is an example of how dangerous it is for the media to conduct sting operation and constant reporting without confirmation of facts.
The line between freedom of speech of the press and the fair trial of the accused is blur. This debate as to how to balance both is an ongoing one, it will exist as long as both the rights exist. However, all that we can exercise is the constraint in reporting. A strict practise of reporting only relevant facts by the media so as to not violate the fair trial of the accused should be practised.
 Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 124, 128 (India).
 R. Rajagopal v. State of T.N (1994) 6 SCC 632 (India).
 Zahira Habibullah & ors v. State of Gujrat (2004) 4 SCC 158 (India).
 State of Maharashtra v. Champala Punjaji Shah AIR (1981) SC 1675 (India).
 Deborah R. Baskin & Ira B. Sommers, Crime- show- viewing habits and public attitudes toward forensic evidence: The “CSI Effect” Revisited*, 31(1) Justice System Journal, 97-113(2010). https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/18376/crime-show-viewing-habits-and-public-attitudes.pdf
Neha Hegde, Impact of Media Trial on Justice system, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (October 25, 2020), https://exgratialawjournal.in/blawg/constitutional-law/impact-of-media-trial-on-justice-system-by-neha-hegde/.