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Media Trial: Erosion Of Ethical Journalism

Cinema, radio, television, magazines are a school of inattention. People look without seeing, listen in without hearing. - Robert Bresson

Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. An element which is expected to publish and report the happenings in the world truely and patiently. More so, it is a machinery which keeps a check on the exceeding power of the government by reporting and bringing the policies to the knowledge of the general public. It can bring revolutions and can bring a change if it stays in its supposed ambit of power.

But in recent times, the media has lost its such character and has turned into something which can break someone's reputation and can even end someone's hard built career.

In this Article, we will understand what trial by media or media trial is and how the same is eroding the ethics of Journalism.

What Is Trial By Media

A Trial is a court process where the presiding judge of a court adjudicates a matter presented before itself weighing all the evidences and the statements of the witnesses relating to a particular case. This is a part of fair trial which can actually assist the court in coming to a conclusion as to who is the guilty party in a given matter.

However in the present times, the media has clothed itself with the power of investigation and trial and ultimately concluding the fate of the accused by branding him/her as a criminal, even before our courts of law, the rightful authority to adjudicate, have delivered a judgement. Here, the media intensely sensationalises a matter and begins to form its opinion, which further builds a particular kind of notion or opinion about the accused among the general public, sans considering the actual facts and evidences of a given case, which not only presents a scenario of grave interference in the procedure of Fair Trail in a court of law but also acutely affects the reputation and presence of the accused (a declared convict by media) in the society.

Thus, Trial by Media is where the media oversteps it's defined boundaries and unjustifiably and recklessly interferes with the judicial process by initiating its own investigation and trial and negatively affecting the image of the accused in the society.

Illegality Of Trial By Media

A Trial by Media is not only illegal but unconstitutional as well. Here, I shall discuss various laws and constitutional provisions the study of which will help in backing the same.

Reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2):
As Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India guarantees protection of certain rights to the citizens, out of these the Fundamental Right of Freedom and Speech and expression [Art.19(1)(a)] is guaranteed. Media also enjoys the same. However, at the same time, reasonable restrictions for such freedom are also placed under Art.19(2).

On reading Article 19(2), we can see that reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the said freedom are given in order to preserve the interest of:
  1. sovereignty and integrity of India,
  2. the security of the state,
  3. friendly relations with foreign state,
  4. public order,
  5. decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court
  6. defamation or incitement to an offence

Clearly, the media, by initiating an unauthorised trial, firstly, defames the accused by labeling him as a convict, when at the end of the day such accused is adjudged as an innocent by a Court of Law. And secondly, such trial by media comes under the purview of contempt of court under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The same is discussed further.

2. Contempt of Courts Act, 1971:
This Act under Section 2 defines both Civil and Criminal Contempt. The present case of media falls under the ambit of criminal contempt.

Section 2(c) defines criminal contempt as:
the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any act whatsoever which:
  1. scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of any court; or
  2. prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
  3. interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of Justice in any other matter;
Clearly, the case of trial by media interferes and obstructs the administration of justice and thus is a Contempt of court.

The Press Council of India - Norms of Journalistic Conduct:
The Press Council of India published the code of Journalistic Conduct in 2010 defining the boundaries of the media and the proper code of conduct to be carried by them as Journalists.

Section 3, among other important conducts, clearly mentions in its sub-section(4) that "the press has a duty, discretion and right to serve the public interest by drawing readers attention to citizens of doubtful antecedents and of questionable character but as responsible journalists they should observe due restraint and caution in hazarding their own opinion or conclusion in branding these persons as Cheats or Killers etc.

The cardinal principle being that the guilt of the accused should be established by proof of facts alleged and not by proof of the bad character of the accused. In the Zest to expose, the Press should not exceed the limits of ethical caution and fair comment."

Therefore, clearly, the trial by media is also a grave violation of the Norms of Journalistic conduct released by the Press Council of India.

Violation of The Principle of Fair Trial:

When the media conducts a trial, it is a direct breach of the sacred principle of the fair trial. A trial is fair in a court of law when the following elements are present in the process:
  1. An adversary Trial System:

    It is a system where a case is presented by the parties before an impartial and independent judge. Here, the onus to prove the guilt of the accused lies on the prosecution and the accused has to defend himself against the accusations of the former.

  2. presumption of innocence:

    A famous legal principle says that an accused is presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty. This means that unless and until the charges and allegations against a given accused are not upheld by a judgement of a Court of Law on the basis of the facts and evidences placed before it, such accuse is presumed to be innocent.

  3. Impartial, independent Judge:

    For conducting a Fair Trail, a judge has to be impartial and independent so that he can adjudicate a given dispute between the parties fearlessly. nemo judex in causa sua which means no one can be a judge in his own cause reflects this principle.

The above discussed principles of Fair Trial are violated when there is a trial by media. How? This is what happens.

Firstly, the media by conducting its own trial, declares and tags the accused as a convict before the trial has even begun before the Courts of Law, violating the basic principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Secondly, most importantly, the judges, who are supposed to be impartial and independent while deciding a matter, may lose such character as they can also get influenced by the unauthorized trial conducted by the hyped media. Since the judges are only human beings they too can get affected by the negligent and reckless conduct of the media because of media trial.

Therefore, the trial by media also gravely interferes with the Fair Trail in the Courts of Law.

Famous Cases Which Were Victims Of Trial By Media

There are some cases which were hugely affected by media trial.

Jessica Lal murder case 2010 and Bijan Joshi rape case 2005. Here, the trial by media led to widespread coverage of the guilt of the accused and led to a certain perception about him. It created hysteria among viewers in high-profile cases, making it nearly impossible for the trial to result in a fair judgment.

In Arushi Talwar murder case as well, the media became hyped and began its own investigation to discover who the killer could be. in this case too the media viciously played up different angles like her father's alleged extra-marital affair, fake news that Aarushi was an adopted child, demonised the Talwars for not crying enough on TV., honour killing.

The latest case of death of Sushant Singh Rajput, where the accused Rhea Chakraborty's reputation was being manhandled by the media by it coming up with almost every new story sans relevant evidences.

Now, we should also be aware about some important case laws and their decisions on Trial by Media. The same is discussed below.

Landmark Case Laws On Media Trial

In re P.C Sen[1], on the night of November 25, 1965, on All India Radio Station a broadcast had taken place which proved to be obstructive in the dispensation of Justice as the details of the accused were unraveled through such broadcast. The Honourable Supreme Court held that any act done or published to bring any Judge or the Court to the ambit of contempt or which tries to bring down the authority of the court to anything that tries to interfere with the proceedings of the law will be termed as contempt of court.

Y.V Hanumantha Rao V. K.R Pattabhiram and Another [2], the court observed that:
"...... when litigation is pending before a court, no one shall comment on it in such a way that there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the action, as for instance by influence on the Judge, the witnesses or by prejudicing mankind in general against a party to the cause. Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a contempt of Court if he prejudices the truth before it is ascertained in the proceedings. To this general rule of fair trial one may add a further rule and that is that none shall, by misrepresentation or otherwise, bring unfair pressure to bear on one of the parties to a cause so as to force him to drop his complaint or defence. It is always regarded as of the first importance that the law which we have just stated should be maintained in its full integrity. But in so stating the law we must bear in mind that there must appear to be a real and substantial danger of prejudice."

In Saibal Kumar Gupta and Ors. v. B.K. Sen and Anr[3], It was held by the Supreme Court that:
"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 that 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. There is no comparison between a trial by a newspaper and what has happened in this case."

Studying the above case laws, it's apparent that the media is slowly going away from and their these actions are resulting in the erosion of ethical Journalism.

Media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy whose duty is to create awareness among the masses regarding various government policies, the world happenings, education, economy and other relevant areas. And it is supposed to conduct itself in the said manner if we want to developed. However, when the same media fails to remember its rightful duty by recklessly acting as an investigation agency, from there the trouble begins not only for the Courts of law but for the accused as well who is made the target of trial by media.

However, our courts of law have time and again reminded the media their actual authority and how they are supposed to carry out their defined duty. Moreover various laws are also on place to keep a check on such acts of the media. Our Judicial system is always working to protect the rights of the people by adjudicating impartially keeping in mind the evidences and the statement of the witnesses on record. And there is no better machinery to dispense impartial justice than our Courts of Law. Therefore, the media should only work in their respective field and let the Courts do their rightful duty, to judge.

  1. AIR 1970 SC 1812
  2. AIR 1975 AP 30
  3. AIR 1961 SC 633

    Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Rasleen Kour

    Awarded certificate of Excellence
    Authentication No: DE33617211235-1-1220

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