Bombay HC issues guidelines defining ‘media trials’ while hearing PILs in SSR’s death coverage


Sreya Kanugula

The High Court of Bombay observed upon a grapple of PILs on the subject of the ‘media trials’ that took place in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.

The court stated that the media must avoid reporting on ongoing investigations and strive to present facts that are in the interest of the general public, instead of “what, according to the media, the public is interested in” in a long 251-page judgment.

The division bench comprising Justices Dipankat Dutta and GS Kulkarni gave directions to print and electronic media to show some restraint by refraining from printing any item of news or discussion or debate interview-style, relating to certain cases and cases of on-going investigation at a specific stage.

The examples of Nilesh Navalakha and others v. Union of India and other concerned cases were given in the judgment in relation to this directive.

They observed that there shouldn’t be any reporting or discussing, debating, or interviewing done that had the potential means to harm the accused/investigated person’s interests or witnesses, viewing the information as a way to “satiate the thirst of stealing a march over competitors in the field of reporting.”

Some of the instances of the indicative and non-exhaustive list of reports laid down by the judgment which had the potential for the insertion of prejudice into an ongoing investigation were as given below:

a. On the subject of death by suicide, the depiction of the departed as weak or intruding upon the deceased’s privacy in any manner.

b. Inferences made that would insert prejudice into an ongoing investigation such as :

(i) Character references made upon the accused/victim and building a prejudicial atmosphere for either;

(ii) Interviewing the victim or the witnesses and/or any family members in the relation to either and displaying this on-screen;

(iii) Analysis of variants of witnesses and evidence they could prove that would prove vital at a trial stage;

(iv) Distribution of the accused’s confession allegedly made in the presence of a police officer and swaying public opinion that this would be considered an admissible evidence piece in front of a Court and that there wouldn’t be any reason for the Court not to take into account, without any information to the public on the Evidence Act, 1872’s details.

(v) Facilitation of an accused’s identification by publishing their photographs.

(vi) Criticism of an investigative agency established upon improper research and information that’s half baked.

(vii) Pronouncement on a case’s merits, including the pre-judgment of guilt or innocence qua an accused/individual still unwanted in whichever case;

(viii) Reconstruction of a scene of a crime and any depiction on how it was committed;

(ix) Future prediction on a course of action that includes any steps that must be taken to complete an investigation; and

(x) Leakage of information of confidential/sensitive nature from the collected materials of the investigating agency.

c. Action of any manner that would be in violation of the Programme Code’s provisions as written under the Cable TV Network Act’s section 5, read with the CTVN Rules’ rule 8 and thereby can be held in contempt of court; and

d. Indulgence is assassinating the character of any individual in question and thereby marring their reputation.

The bench stated that though these given guidelines weren’t intended to be exhaustive, they certainly work as indicative and every report carried out by the media in print or electronic format must be in conformity with the Programme Code.

They said that they must also abide by the norms such as journalistic standards as well as the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Regulations by default, setting aside any action that might be taken as per the prevailing mechanisms of regulation.

The court made the observation that The erring media house could make itself liable to face an action in contempt, i.e., criminal contempt within the meaning of section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act which, as and when initiated, would obviously have to be decided by the competent court on its own merits and in accordance with law.”

The judgment also included scathing remarks against the reporting done by Republic TV as well as Times Now in the case of SSR’s death and observed that such reports were considered “prima facie contemptuous.”

The High Court stated that the criticism made against the city police by the television media was quite unfair, with the material on record. They were still at the starting stage of their probe when the criticism began to broadcast.

The bench had questioned the lawyers representing Republic TV, by asking them “If you become the investigator, prosecutor, and the judge, what is the use of us? Why are we here.

A remark was passed to Advocate Malvika Trivedi, the counsel of Republic TV, on whether asking the public opinion on whose arrest must be made, was a part of journalism done on investigations.

They questioned severely whether “When a case is under investigation and the issue is whether it’s a homicide or a suicide and a channel is saying it is murder, is that investigative journalism”

The bench gave the channel’s legal representative information on how the powers of the investigation remained in the hands of the police under the CrPC.

The Court also stated some illustration on investigative prejudice caused by media trials that ran unregulated. It also gave demonstrations on how such biased reports by the media affect the witnesses, perceptions of the accused, the police, and so on.

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