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Media Trial in India

“The Press is called the Fourth estate. It is definitely a power, but to misuse that power is criminal”.

Mahatma Gandhi

Introduction

The history of media dates back to the 18th century when the 1st newspaper ‘Bengal Gazette’ was launched by James Augustus Hicky in the year 1780. Later in the 19th century Raja Ram Mohan Roy began publications that enkindled the mind of Indian public towards achieving independence. This helped the leaders of the nation to understand the importance of media and journalism. In the present, the media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy. Media plays a significant role in molding the opinion of the public and is capable of influencing the viewpoint about various events and incidents. So it is necessary that the media conveys authentic information to the general public. When a sensational or scandalizing case comes before the court, the media publish different versions of facts of the case. This is due to the prevalence of investigative journalism in India. There are instances where the facts that are published about the case can create an impact on the perception of innocence or guilt of a person even before the court declares the verdict, this is called a ‘Media Trial’.

Prevalence of Media Trial in India

Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution states that all citizens have a Right to Freedom of speech and expression, which also incorporates Freedom of Press. Article 19(2) states that reasonable restrictions on this right can be made to maintain friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. It has been observed by the 200th Report by the Law Commission of India that there has been extensive prejudicial coverage of crime and information about suspects and accused, both in the print and electronic media. In India several cases have been influenced by media trials. The news channels and newspapers try to extract those facts which would enable increase of TRP or sale of their newspapers. Nowadays social media has been an active platform for the public to share their views and opinions about a particular case. The disadvantage of such a platform is that it might only convey partial information about a subject thus causing chaos in determining the truth. For example, in Mannarkkad Forest Range in Palakkad district Kerala, a pregnant elephant had died after she ate a pineapple stuffed with crackers which caused major wounds in her oral cavity, due to which she could not eat for nearly two weeks leading to her collapse in a river and drowning. Drowning followed by inhalation of water leading to lung failure was the immediate cause of the animal’s death[1].Many news channels, social media and political leaders tried to politicize and regionalize this issue. It was publicized in the media that this act was done for fun, enraging the public. This news also generalized people of Kerala to be cruel. After an investigation done by the Police and Forest department it was found that the accused had placed the explosive-laden snares to check crop-raiding wild boars which were ruining the crops. Even though the act of the accused is unjustifiable it caused a lot of conflict between the people because they only knew part of the information. This could have been avoided if the media had provided proper facts and information.

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Effects of Media Trial

To understand whether a Media Trial is fair or not it is significant to understand the effect of a media trial. Media keeps us updated about the developments in different fields around the globe. It is easy to get publicity by the media, but difficult to know the truth behind the crime that has been committed. Media trials though not legally binding, have other consequences. Keeping in mind that media’s main motive should be to provide an unbiased view or information about a case or an event, some of the positive impacts of media trial are:

  • Some of the cases have led to questioning the innocence of the accused and administering justice were, Manu Sharma vs. State of NCT (Delhi)[2] The Jessica Lal case, 2010, Santosh Kumar Singh v. State through CBI,[3]  The Priyadarshini Mattoo case, 2006 and The Bijal Joshi rape case, 2005.
  • It gives different views and opinions about the case that concerns the public in general. For example Environmental Impact assessment (EIA) draft 2020 is a recent topic that has been debated and discussed by the media.
  • Under the Sec 3(1) Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, publication during the trial period is permitted if it does not obstruct or interfere in administration of justice and had no reasonable grounds for believing that the proceeding was pending.
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Some of the negative impacts that can be observed are:

  • Media trial violates the Right to Privacy under Article 21 which is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. A person who is just an accused and not proven to be guilty can lose reputation because of the wide media coverage about his personal life. It also affects the right to privacy of the family members, as the press is always around the vicinity of the accused causing inconvenience.
  • Some cases that have caused contempt of court are In re P.C. Sen, (1968), Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr, (1973) and Sushil Sharma v. The State (Delhi Administration and Ors.), (1996).
  • Usually the media has brief facts of the incidents. They usually do not have any evidence of a particular case, thus publishing prejudiced facts creating a room for manoeuvre.  
  •  When people read about the published or broadcasted news they tend to believe it, thus causing chaos or conflicts among the public.
  • Our Indian Constitution also provides fair trial under the jurisprudence of law. When an accused is deemed to be guilty because of the media trial, it violates that principle of fair trial.
  •  A person shall not be guilty of contempt of court on the ground that he has published (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) any matter which interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the course of justice in connection with any civil or criminal proceeding pending at that time of publication, if at that time he had no reasonable grounds for believing that the proceeding was pending.[4]

Conclusion

It can be concluded that media trials have more negative effects than positive effects. It is necessary that there should be proper legislation that should determine the limit of interference in the process of administration of justice.  Media trial is based on emotional exploitation of the viewers. Everyone should have the right to prove their innocence. If the verdict is contrary, then the media should discuss and present the views and opinions of the nation which will render better justice. Giving an ultimatum on the innocence of a person by media trial is a wrongful act. Thus, it is necessary that there are reasonable restrictions on media trials. As rightly stated in hearing of Muzaffarpur Shelter Home case by a bench of Hon’ble Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta “…The media goes to one complete extreme at a point. There has to be a balance. You cannot say whatever you feel like saying. You cannot have media trials. Tell us where to draw the line.” [5]

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[1] The Hindu https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/more-arrests-soon-kerala-minister-after-1-held-in-elephant-s-death-case/story-gd2gQPWACox1fmsp5IaCoI.html (last visited 24th august 2020)

[2] (2010) 6 SCC 1

[3] (2010) 9 SCC 747

[4] https://blog.ipleaders.in/constitutionality-of-media-trials-and-landmark-cases/  (lasted visited 24th august 2020)

[5] Media Trial Can’t Be Allowed; Press Needs To Draw A Line: Top Court https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/media-trial-cant-be-allowed-press-needs-to-draw-a-line-top-court-1915041  11th September 2018 (last visited 24th august 2020)


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

Surya Sunilkumar, Media Trial in India, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (September 15, 2020), https://exgratialawjournal.in/blawg/technology-and-law/media-trial-in-india-by-surya-sunilkumar/.

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Author

Surya Sunilkumar
Student - Ramaiah Institute of Legal Studies