This article has been authored by Trusha Yadavilli, a second year student at Jindal Global Law School.
In the 21st century, the world is imbued within a digital age with it covering every facet of life – from shopping to food to opinion shaping. It has come to govern each person’s life, allowing everyone to express their views at an unprecedented scale and reach. Usually considered as the fourth pillar of democracy, media is a powerful force with the potential to change the minds of the people and the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent. With the world’s opinions and views only a click away, there is rising trend of media trying to take on the role of law enforcement in the form of trial by media. While many endorse this new media channel power, which aims to facilitate justice, it could also be a hindrance to the same.
Media Trials: Understanding the Concept
Media trials are views, opinions and wilful intents or vested interests passed on as verdicts. Media influencers across the spectrum of traditional, electronic and digital media conduct and pass such verdicts while the court trials are still ongoing, regardless of the impact it may have on the actual decision of the court. These media trials can be disastrous as it can result in bullying along with ostracism, whether the trial was in favour of the accused or not. Generally, in such trials the public assigns certain roles to the parties of an incident, goaded by the media anchors. If a person is portrayed as a victim by the media there is a chance to evoke sympathy among the public; on the other hand, if the same media portrays them as a rapist or a murderer, there is mass hate and de-humanizing of the individual, thus declaring a verdict unofficially and later deciding to carry out their form of public justice.
Effect on the Judges and the Judicial Decisions
The fundamental problem associated with media trials is that it could influence judges and their opinions, especially in high profile cases. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution read with Section 304 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CRPC) (Free legal aid) ensures that every person in India has the right to a fair and just trial, as stated in Zahira Habibullah Sheikh v. State of Gujarat, a fair trial must be one free of any personal prejudices with fair and unbiased judges witnesses and prosecutors. Media, by conducting such trials, paints both sides in a certain way which influences not only the people but also might influence the judges and juries (in other countries). Even though the phrase ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is probably the most crucial concept in criminal law, trial by media undermines the same by passing a judgment without any proof or authority. In high profile cases, judges may feel pressured and threatened into passing a judgment to appease the public and media to save face in the community. Thereby the idea of a fair trial is corrupted.
Legal Consequences of Media Trials
Media trials may have other serious legal implications such as contempt of court and defamation suits for the ‘media jurors’. Contempt of Court is committed when there are efforts to prejudice ongoing trials under the Contempt of Court Act 1971. Manipulation of the trial may lead to litigants going behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Any video, article, post etc that may manipulate judges or witnesses in an ongoing or to-be heard trial may add up to contempt of court. Justice AK Sikri remarked that the power of Contempt of Court was not being used as much as it should be and that the media and public commenting on what an ongoing case’s verdict ‘should be’ puts the judges under stress.
All journalists and influencers must be wise about the content they put out. Defamation suits on the media are also a common relief that people resort to when they are ‘attacked’ by media and journalists. As seen in the #MeToo movement many women who spoke up and shared their experiences had defamation cases thrown at them. This drawback is common as the facts projected may not always be verifiable. Journalists, anchors and influencers who comment on on-going cases or accuse someone to be murderers or rapists without any proof become liable for defamation suits (for example in the Sheena Bohra murder case the media accused Indrani Mukherji and broadcasted and highly scrutinized her private life).
Verdicts passed by the media and public at times, seem to overshadow the ones passed by judges, hence undermining them. Law is the facilitator of justice, solely having the power to pass official judgments, but what power does it hold when the public refuses to accept the judgement? The media verdicts subvert the entire system of justice and the constitutional sanctity of law. There have been many cases where the role of media had been questioned and put under inspection. In Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr, the High Court stated that if a litigation is still pending in any court, no one should comment on it with the intent to influence the trial or to manipulate the Judge, the witnesses or mankind in general against a party to the cause.
In RK Anand vs Registrar, the Court noted that the media created a very hostile atmosphere making it nearly impossible to conduct a fair trial along with the public already holding the accused guilty regardless of the official trial, which further makes it difficult to live their lives without public scrutiny. This can be observed in the Dr Mrs Nupur Talwar vs CBI Delhi And Anr. (Aarushi Talwar case), which was a highly sensationalized case in the media with it playing a pivotal role in influencing the people into deciding who the ‘killer’ was, initially starting with placing intense suspicion on the victim’s father Rajesh Talwar and later the mother Nupur Talwar. The father was later exonerated, and the media was heavily criticized for its premature verdict.
The media, in the Mukesh & Anr. vs State for NCT of Delhi & Ors (Nirbhaya rape case) helped mobilize people of India to fight for justice. With many rape cases still pending in the courts, the intense coverage of this incident encouraged protests and movements. This case became an eye-opener for the harrowing truth of women’s safety in India, leading to the formulation of many new laws and reforms. While the media did help in giving the case its due importance the intense coverage also led to lot of pressure on the judges and lawyers involved. Justice Kurian Joseph, a former Supreme Court Judge, commented on the stress that had mounted on the judiciary during the Nirbhaya case along with his disapproval of media trials and its effect on judgments. He remarked that he felt pressured and thought that if he hadn’t given the verdict the public wanted they would have hung him instead.
The Need of Media Channels
While there might be drawbacks to media trials, putting too many constraints on the media would take away the fundamental right of freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. It should come with clear limitations on credibility of information, veracity of statements ultimately restrict ill-intended agendas. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc. are all very important and pervasive 21st century media channels for the public to express their opinion and to be heard. This allows them to reach people and give them a chance to share their stories and opinion and at the same time hold immense power to shape and direct public opinion. Pressure by media has led to many cases being reopened and reassessed.
People have taken to social media to share their experiences not only on sexism and sexual harassment such as the #Metoo movement but also on issues related to caste or religion. Many who are not in a position to file First Information Reports (FIR) or are intimidated into not pressing charges use this medium to express their grievances. There are many who take to social media as they feel helpless with current judicial processes, with thousands of cases still on hold in court with an indefinite time frame; social media allows these people to seek out a new kind of justice for themselves. A well-known case where media played a crucial role was the Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu vs State (NCT of Delhi) (Jessica Lal case), where the victim was shot and the suspect was in custody but was acquitted due to false eyewitness statements. Here the media, along with the full might of journalists and the public helped get the case reopened and finally convict the murderer. Several other cases like this have been reopened and reassessed with the help of the media.
Social media is the most powerful yet dangerous tool that exists today. As it continues to gain importance and indispensability it is pertinent to ask for checks and balances on this media behemoth. We must be careful as free media does not always mean accurate media or responsible media. When used responsibly, media can be revolutionary to the nature of justice as we know it. It keeps checks on the judiciary too with increased scrutiny from the public, but it can be as malevolent when leveraged irresponsibly.
While these two pillars of democracy, the judiciary and the media, continue to clash an understanding must be reached. They must adapt and accommodate with each other with due respect given to both. While media and the public should not have arbitrary restrictions imposed upon them, there definitely must be steps that need to be taken to help regulate the media in order to ensure fair trials. To help regulate the trial by media phenomenon, the 200th Law commissions report, Trial by Media: Free Speech vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971) recommends that the media should be prohibited from reporting and publishing anything that could prejudice a trial against the accused in a case which is still sub judice. Measures such as these can go a long way in limiting media trials and the spread of false information ensuring fair trials, free of any manipulation so that justice and punishment may be given to only those who deserve it. As the law slowly adapts to the rise of new media, the legal system will evolve with media and judiciary existing side by side, making sure justice is secured and is made available for everyone.