'Trial by media' is a phrase that has been used popularly in the last few decades to describe the impact of television and print media coverage on a case by an attempt made by the media of holding the accused guilty even prior to his trial and regardless of any verdict in the court of law.

The Indian Constitution under its Article 19(1)(a) grants freedom of speech and expression to its citizens. The freedom of press is a necessary element of the freedom of expression that involves a right to receive and impart information without which democracy becomes an empty slogan. But 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 the above mentioned article, 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.”

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India said- “I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.” But he did not foresee the danger involved as he did not expect the press to get involved into something which is beyond its limit and ethics too and which further hinders the ‘administration of justice’ which is the very essence of the natural justice and the rule of law.

Cases where pre-trial publicity by media was seen

The impact of media has been observed in full swing in the cases of Jessica Lall Priyadarshini Mattoo, Nitish Katera, BMW and Aarushi murder.

Impact of the trial by media

Media has now reincarnated itself into a ‘public court’ which can also be referred as “Janta Adalat” and has started interfering into court proceedings so much so that it pronounces its own verdict even before the court does. It completely overlooks the vital gap between an accused and a convict keeping at stake the golden principles of ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ and ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’.

Nowadays what we actually observe is a trial by media, where the media itself conducts a separate investigation, builds a public opinion against the accused even before the court takes cognizance of the case. By this way it prejudices the public, as a result of which many a time it could happen that the accused, who should be assumed innocent, is presumed to be a criminal leaving all his rights and liberty unredressed. When excessive publicity about a case and the suspect involved in the case by the media prejudices a fair trial or results in characterizing the accused as a person who had indeed committed the crime, it amounts to undue interference with the “administration of justice”, calling for proceedings for contempt of court against the media.

To an extent it can be agreed that the media, by publicizing certain facts, as it was best seen in Jessica Lall case acts as a catalyst which is conducive to the speedy progress of the trial and media activism of this nature is acceptable. However, once the trial has commenced, the media has no right to pronounce based on its perception the innocence or guilt of the persons involved in the case. Determination of the guilt or innocence of a person under our constitutional scheme is the function of the courts, and not the media. Besides, irreparable harm can be caused to a person’s reputation by prematurely judging him or her guilty.

In this context, a distinct observation was made by a Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Justices P. Sathasivam and Swatanter Kumar in their judgment in the Jessica Lall case whereby the duty and role played by the media while reporting a case was brought out stating that “Presumption of innocence of an accused is a legal presumption and should not be destroyed at the very threshold through the process of media trial and that too when the investigation is pending. In that event, it will be opposed to the very basic rule of law and would impinge upon the protection granted to an accused under Article 21”. The Bench cautioned that, “every effort should be made by the print and electronic media to ensure that the distinction between trial by media and informative media is always maintained”1. Media will render great service if it observes the lakshman rekha charted by the Supreme Court. By sating the above the court clearly spoke about the responsibility shouldered to media and the limitations to be kept in mind by the media while reporting a case.

Conclusion

Media, as referred to by many as the “eyes and ears of the general public”. It forms the backbone of our society. And a responsible media is expected to take into consideration the reliance entrusted on it by the general public and confidence and faith entrusted whereby common man/public blindly accepts the truth of the news published by media. This actually calls for the existence of a responsible media. While acting as a responsible media, it should follow certain norms in reporting of a crime or any news related to the same:

  1. Accuracy of the case shall be maintained and verified before the same is reported/published and read of all.
  2. Every caution shall be undertaken to avoid any writing that is opinion based i.e. either favoring or defaming any person/party.
  3. Right to privacy shall not be interfered with.
  4. Accuracy is of utmost importance while reporting court proceedings.
  5. Reports based on mere suspicion or personal opinion shall not be published.
  6. Appreciation of an act of violence shall be avoided always.
  7. The heading shall not be purposely made sensational or provocative; it must be apt for the matter printed under it.
  8. Rectification shall be published without any delay in cases of error.