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Media Trial: A Threat to Judiciary

Introduction

Since the past few months, media the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ [1] is working really hard in making information available to their audience, possibly of questionable accuracy, they know time is limited and people believe that seem logical on the first go without any reasoning. Once they find the attention and trust of the audience they disregard the ones who challenge them and start acting as the house of justice or the third pillar. I guess you must have anticipated the direction of this theme, with what’s been happening from the last few months.

Media has gained its popularity of being the new courts in the country where they are the one doing all the investigations and passing a judgement. No doubt with the title of the fourth pillar they hold certain amount of power, but with great power comes with great responsibility. Seems like the power is explicit without any accountability.

Law is not always about searching the truth but judging on the facts between rival versions of them. A trial by the court comes with a lot of issues itself imagine the additional issues a media trail poses. Hate campaigns, trolling, etc impacts the judicial process entirely. Constitutionally press in India does not have special rights[2], it’s just an imperative for democracy to survive. in my opinion media acts like the investigation agency and also the judge. They see themselves above the judiciary in the grad of free speech and fair trial almost making it like a “tele-terror”.

Use of free Speech and Trial

Let’s look at it from a bird’s eye view, with all the pre-trial publicity done by media houses in cases of Sushant Singh Rajput, Kangana Ranout, Bollywood Drug Case, Tablighi Jamaat incident, even the Aarushi murder case. In all these cases the media houses started ruling out verdicts. This is where Article 19(1) comes into picture where it  grants freedom of speech and expression[3] to citizens and freedom of press is an element of freedom of expression, but this right is not absolute where the judiciary can restrict them defamation and contempt of court as mentioned under clause 2 of the article[4]. These media houses swoop down all the information on these cases, they feasted on these, get whoever they could involve and start with a series of examinations, debate, lining suspects, getting hold of evidence and employing methods for further Intel when all of this is the duty law enforcement agencies to get to the bottom of the problem by fair investigation without breaking prejudices of the administration and judiciary to look into.

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Media trail v/s The Judiciary

Mass media attempts to influence the citizens in general but in the recent events Media has been influencing their audience on pending cases, it’s good to educate the audience but influencing them is another thing. Media trials are doing great damage to the judiciary by commenting on pending cases and trying to influence public perception[5]. Though the court of public opinion is judged on arbitrary notions of fact and law with a little regard to evidence or statements, yet the trial has is a chilling effect on the process of natural justice and fair trial.

There is substantial danger to public safety and moral as there is no defence to it its like falsely calling out ‘fire’ in a crowed place. Earlier to determine the guilt, the accused was asking to chant the name of god and if it couldn’t then they were proved guilty. In present day, in a media trial a accused is silent, that is seen as guilt[6]. Having expanded on the right and duty of media to provide citizens with information, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said media trials will hamper the administration of justice and that they are likely to be in contempt of court [7].  For example Television channels report bail matters before it is even heard in any of the courts. They play conversations to be made by the accused; articles are released with document details along with parallel proceedings. [8] This affects the presumption of innocence [9]  amounts to contempt of court. Its undeniable that media has been shining a light by investigating high profile cases like they are carrying out some sting operations. The sensualisation done by news channels or journalist is either for their personal gains or to increase their TRP’S. By doing this, news channels do not realise they are entering the province of courts and jeopardises the decision of the court.

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In corner-cases where Statements are taken by journalist on their debate shows to examine and cross examine the supposed accused cause great hindrance to fair trial. Maybe it provides an instant excitement which is lacking in the long driven investigation, but when an accurate reporting is replaced by hurried and dramatically portray opinions it is a threat to the trail, its like the Media has already convicted the accused person even before the foul play is established. To worsen, it’s like a competition among numerous news channels to retain their audience.  It is often, that coverage of media can reflect the view of a person who walks on the street including lawyers, it influences them to not take up these cases and sometimes even dissuades advocates who have actually taken up the case. There seems to be no check on their innovation and utter regard for the legal process.

Conclusion

If Media houses start behaving like the judge, jury and executioner of all that is going wrong, instead of sticking to its core job of mirroring the actual state affairs, then we all are heading to a certain doom. When public bases their opinion off sketchy information they cannot be expected to rationalise. The narrative put forward by the fourth pillar and the truth are very different, to say at least the press has to be free but it also has to be trustworthy.  Law is on one end and human irrationality and ignorance on the other. For this very reason India abolished jury trials and the hour calls upon India to do the same with media trails.


[1] The term given by Thomas Caryle, where Media is used to make people aware about Social, Economic, Political activities and provide accurate new happening around the world.

[2] This right is not absolute and is subjected to the reasonable restrictions of defamation and contempt of court among others mentioned in clause (2) of  article, 19 which clearly states that “this right can be restricted by law only in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

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[3]  Constitution of India- Article 19

[4] This right can be restricted by law only in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

[5] Venugopal, who was appearing in his personal capacity in the 2009 contempt of court case against lawyer Prashant Bhushan

[6]  Trial by Incantation a practice used in the 17th century to determine the guilt of the person.

[7] S.2 of the contempt of courts act 1971 states that which prejudices or interferes or trends to interfere with , the due course of any judicial proceeding in any other manner.

[8] Observed in Romila Thapar v/s Union of India28 September, 2018.

[9] Supreme Court in Sahara v Sebi, 11 September, 2012.


Cite this article (The Bluebook 20th ed.)-

Priyanka Shahani, Media Trial: A Threat to Judiciary, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (October 28, 2020), https://exgratialawjournal.in/blawg/constitutional-law/media-trial-a-threat-to-judiciary-by-priyanka-shahani/.

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Author

Priyanka Shahani
Student - K C Law College, Mumbai