Are Media Trials Violating Fundamental Rights ?

Privacy is a value which underpins human dignity and other key values such as freedom of association and freedom of speech. It should not be assumed that a desire for privacy means that a person has ‘something to hide’. Trial by media threatens these very human values.

What are Media Trials?

Media Trials is a phrase used to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a Court of law.

 Although a recently coined phrase, the idea that popular media can have a strong influence on the legal process goes back certainly to the advent of the printing press and probably much further. This is not including the use of a State controlled press to criminalize political opponents, but the commonly understood meaning is, it covers all occasions where the reputation of a person has been drastically affected by ostensible non-political publications.

What are the implications of Media Trial:

If the suspect’s pictures are shown in the media, identification parades of the accused conducted under Code of Civil Procedure would be prejudiced. Under the Contempt of Court Act, publications that interfere with the administration of justice amount to contempt.

Further, the principles of natural justice emphasize fair trial and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The rights of an accused are protected under Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to fair trial. This protects the accused from the over-zealous media glare which can prejudice the case.

Position of 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’.

We cannot forget the Common Law rule laid down in R v. Sussex Justices: ex parte McCarthy by Lord Hewart that “Justice should not only be done, it should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

Hon’ble Justice D. M. Dharmadhikari, Chairman, M. P. The Human Rights Commission also asserted that there is always a chance that judges get influenced by the flowing air of remarks made upon a particular controversy. The media presents the case in such a manner to the public that if a judge passes an order against the “media verdict”, he or she is deemed either as corrupt or biased.

  • If no Media discussion then what happens to Freedom of Press:

Journalism and ethics stand apart. While journalists are distinctive facilitators for the democratic process to function without hindrance the media has to follow the virtues of ‘accuracy, honesty, truth, objectivity, fairness, balanced reporting, respect for autonomy of ordinary people‘. These are all part of the democratic process. 

      But practical considerations, namely, pursuit of successful career, promotion to be obtained, compulsion of meeting deadlines and satisfying Media Managers by meeting growth targets, are recognized as factors for the ‘temptation to print trivial stories salaciously presented‘. In the temptation to sell stories, what is presented is what ‘the public is interested in‘ rather than ‘what is in public interest’. — Mr. Andrew Belsey in his article ‘Journalism and Ethics, can they co-exist’ quoted by the Delhi High Court in Mother Dairy Foods & Processing Ltd v. Zee Telefilms

Excessive prejudicial publicity leading to usurpation of functions of the court not only interferes with administration of justice which is sought to be protected under the constitution of India.

If the media publishes unregulated coverage of a case that is prejudicial and the public who is to adjudicate the case is influenced by such publication it jeopardises the principle of Free and fair trial.

In fact even if an accused is acquitted the news coverage on the case framing the accused as guilty may still live in people’s mind which may cause them difficulty in returning to society.

Rights of the accused:

Our criminal law and criminal jurisprudence are based on the premise that the guilt of any person charged in a court of law has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt and that the accused is presumed to be innocent unless the contrary is proved in public, in a court of law, observing all the legal safeguards to an accused. 

     Not only that, the accused has a basic right to silence. That right stems from the constitutional right of the accused common to several constitutions that the accused cannot be compelled to incriminate himself. That is also the reason why confessions to the police are inadmissible in a court of law. Allowing such confessions to be aired leads to violation of article 20(3).

Right to life over Freedom of Press:

Lawyers are not untouched by the inimical effects of trial by media. Every now and then there are events where lawyers refuse to take cases because of pressure created by the media. When an eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani decided to defend Manu, a murder accused, a senior editor of the television news channel CNN-IBN called the decision to represent Sharma an attempt to “defend the indefensible”. The right of the accused under Article 22(1) is violated this way.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was signed by India in which Article 12 deals with the person’s privacy rights and reads thus:

 “Article 12: No one shall be subject to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to protection of the law against such interference and attacks.”The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (ICCPR) was ratified by India in 1976 and it states as follows:

 “Article 14(2): Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.”

Few supporting Precedents:

  1.  the Bofors payoff case, the High Court of Delhi observed that,

 “The fairness of trial is of paramount importance as without such protection there would be trial by media which no civilized society can and should tolerate.  The functions of the Court in the civilized society cannot be usurped by any other authority.”  

The Court agreed that media awareness creates awareness of the crime, but the right to fair trial is as valuable as the right to information and freedom of communication.

  1. The Apex Court in Sidhartha Vashisht, Manu Sharma v. State (Nct Of Delhi)observed that :

“the freedom of speech has to be carefully and cautiously used to avoid interference in the administration of justice. If trial by media hampers fair investigation and prejudices the right of defence of the accused, it would amount to travesty of justice. The Court remarked that the media should not act as an agency of the Court. The Court commented “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.”

  1. In Saibal Kumar v. B.K. Sen The Supreme Court tried to discourage the tendency of media trial and remarked,

 “No doubt, it would be mischievous for a newspaper to systematically conduct an independent investigation into a crime for which a man has been arrested and to publish the results of the investigation. This is because trial by newspapers, when a trial by one of the regular tribunals of the country is going on, must be prevented. The basis for this view is that such action on the part of a newspaper tends to interfere with the course of justice, whether the investigation tends to prejudice the accused or the prosecution.”

Observations:

The 200th Law Commission Report qualifies certain publications as prejudicial if made after a person is arrested. It has been recognized in several countries and also in India that publications which refer to character, previous convictions, confessions can amount to contempt. There are various other aspects such as judging the guilt or innocence of the accused or discrediting witnesses etc. mentioned in the report which can amount to contempt.

Media trials cannot be let to subsist in a civilized society. The right of freedom and speech and expression cannot take precedence over the right to life of an individual.

About the Author – Aditya Pratap

Aditya Pratap is a lawyer practising in Mumbai. He argues cases in the Bombay High Court, Sessions and Magistrate Courts, along with appearances before RERA, NCLT and the Family Court. For further information one may visit his website adityapratap.in or view his YouTube Channel to see his interviews. Questions can be emailed to him at aditya@adityapratap.com.

This Article is made by Aditya Pratap in assistance with Aditi Dixit.

Cases argued by Aditya Pratap can be viewed here.

Spread the word
Avatar
About Team LawZilla 76 Articles
General Account for Team LawZilla