Law Insider India

Legal News, Current Trends and Legal Insight | Supreme Court of India and High Courts

Degrading Indian Media

10 min read
media law insider in

media law insider in

By Adv Anup K Tiwari

For every Nation, media is essential for growth, social justice and fair Reporting, but from the past few years we have seen a huge crisis in Indian Media. It will be not incorrect to say that Media at it’s low right now. 

In the recent case of Sushant Sigh Rajpoot Supreme court assigned CBI to investigate the cause of death. So far many vital pieces of evidence have been gathered which indicating the possibility of murder. On the parallel, media trail is going on where personal chats and talks have been aired. Media persons investigating and asking questions assuming to be an Investigative Authority. Ethics, manners and Decency no more exist when we talk about Indian Media.

Even if someone has committed a crime we cannot declare that accused a criminal till the court of Law declares. 

Indian society has become somewhat unstable on its three legs (Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary), the media or press has emerged as the fourth pillar through the rights guaranteed under Article 19 of The Indian Constitution. The media plays a vital role of a watchdog on the other three pillars working as the functionaries of society. It tries to bring the wrongs in our system to the public’s knowledge with the hope of correcting them.

The media revolution has resulted in great gains for the general public. The ethical and fearless journalism has aided the judiciary of the state in taking Suo-moto cognizance of the matters in various cases based on the press reports. Media has the power to influence and revolutionize masses. However, every coin has two sides. The increased role and importance attached to the media led to a competitive market, grabbing for the attention of viewers and readers. This often turns into a distortion of facts and sensationalization. It motivates the use of invasive newsgathering practices, which tends to hinder the privacy of the people who are the subject of such reportage.

What is Journalism?

Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting Information.  

What is a media trial?

Media trial can be called as where the media investigate and attempts to hold the accused guilty on the basis of their collected data, even before his trial and irrespective of any verdict in the court of law. The media broadly covers sub judice matters by publishing material and opinions detrimental to the interests of the parties involved in trial pending before the Courts.

Media has now reincarnated itself into a ‘public court,’ also known as “Janta Adalat.” This means that the media is interfering with the court proceedings, pronouncing its verdict prior to the court’s judgment. The principles of law do not approve of presuming the accused as guilty until proven. But the media is overlooking such basic and vital principles of law while declaring the accused as guilty. Adjudication by media in court cases has become a trend in the current scenario to boost the TRP of news channels. Media influences the masses by turning an innocent into a culprit, thus changing the perceptions. 

Article 19(1)(a) of India’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression to its citizens. It also provides for Freedom of Press to ensure democracy. The press has the right to obtain and report information. However, this right is not absolute. There are certain reasonable restrictions stated under Article 19(2), which includes defamation and contempt of court.

With the case of Sheena Bohra murder, the excruciating eyes of the media have pierced the personal life of the main accused Indrani Mukherjea which has kicked in a fresh debate on the issue of media trial of the accused. Every aspect of her personal life and character which have nothing to do legally with the investigation of the murder are under public lens of scrutiny via the media. The ethics of journalism have been again in a controversial area due to their prying eyes on the accused.

Media is regarded as one of the four pillars of democracy. Media plays a vital role in moulding the opinion of the society and it is capable of changing the whole viewpoint through which people perceive various events. The media can be commended for starting a trend where the media plays an active role in bringing the accused to hook. Especially in the last two decades, the advent of cable television, local radio networks and the internet has greatly enhanced the reach and impact of the mass media. The circulation of newspapers and magazines in English as well as the various vernacular languages has also been continuously growing in our country. This ever-expanding readership and viewership coupled with the use of modern technologies for newsgathering has given media organizations an unprecedented role in shaping popular opinions. However, media freedom also entails a certain degree of responsibility.

The strength and importance of media in a democracy is well recognized. Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which gives freedom of speech and expression includes within its ambit, freedom of press. The existence of a free, independent and powerful media is the cornerstone of a democracy, especially of a highly mixed society like India. Media is not only a medium to express one’s feelings, opinions and views, but it is also responsible and instrumental for building opinions and views on various topics of regional, national and international agenda. The pivotal role of the media is its ability to mobilize the thinking process of millions. The increased role of the media in today’s globalized and tech-savvy world was aptly put in the words of Justice Learned Hand of the United States Supreme Court when he said, “The hand that rules the press, the radio, the screen and the far spread magazine, rules the country”.

Democracy is the rule of the people, a system which has three strong pillars. But as Indian society today has become somewhat unstable on its 3 legs- the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, the guarantee of Article 19 (1)(a) has given rise to a fourth pillar known as media or press. It plays the vital role of a conscious keeper, a watchdog of the functionaries of society and attempts to attend to the wrongs in our system, by bringing them to the knowledge of all, hoping for correction. It is indisputable that in many dimensions the unprecedented media revolution has resulted in great gains for the general public. Even the judicial wing of the state has benefited from the ethical and fearless journalism and taken suo-moto cognizance of the matters in various cases after relying on their reports and news highlighting grave violations of human rights.

However, there are always two sides of a coin. With this increased role and importance attached to the media, the need for its accountability and professionalism in reportage cannot be emphasized enough. In a civil society no right to freedom, howsoever invaluable it might be, can be considered absolute, unlimited, or unqualified in all circumstances. The freedom of the media, like any other freedom recognized under the Constitution has to be exercised within reasonable boundaries. With great power comes great responsibility. Similarly, the freedom under Article 19(1) (a) is correlative with the duty not to violate any law.

In an increasingly competitive market for grabbing the attention of viewers and readers, media reports often turn to distortion of facts and sensationalisation. The pursuit of commercial interests also motivates the use of intrusive newsgathering practices which tend to impede the privacy of the people who are the subject of such coverage. The problem finds its worst manifestation when the media extensively covers sub judice matters by publishing information and opinions that are clearly prejudicial to the interests of the parties involved in litigation pending before the Courts.

However, sensationalised news stories circulated by the media have steadily gnawed at the guarantees of a right to a fair trial and posed a grave threat to the presumption of innocence. What is more, the pervasive influence of the press is increasingly proving to be detrimental to the impartial decision making process of the judiciary. Such news stories cannot easily be defended under the auspices of freedom of expression.

Every institution is liable to be abused, and every liberty, if left unbridled, has the tendency to become a license which would lead to disorder and anarchy. This is the threshold on which we are standing today. Television channels in a bid to increase their Television Rating Point (TRP) ratings are resorting to sensationalized journalism with a view to earn a competitive edge over the others.

In recent times there have been numerous instances in which media has conducted the trial of an accused and has passed the verdict even before the court passes its judgment. Some famous criminal cases that would have gone unpunished but for the intervention of media, are Priyadarshini Mattoo caseJessica Lal caseNitish Katara murder case and Bijal Joshi rape case. The media however drew flak in the reporting of murder of Aarushi Talwar, when it preempted the court and reported that her own father Dr. Rajesh Talwar, and possibly her mother Nupur Talwar were involved in her murder, the CBI later declared that Rajesh was not the killer.

This phenomenon is popularly called as media trial. Trial by Media it is 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. There is a heated debate between those who support a free press which is largely uncensored and those who place a higher priority on an individual’s right to privacy and right to a fair trial. During high publicity court cases, the media are often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria akin to a lynch mob which not only makes a fair trial nearly impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial the accused persons will not be able to live the rest of their life without intense public scrutiny. The counter-argument is that the mob mentality exists independently of the media which merely voices the opinions which the public already has. There are different reasons why the media attention is particularly intense surrounding a legal case: the first is that the crime itself is in some way sensational, by being horrific or involving children; the second is that it involves a celebrity either as victim or accused. 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 beyond. This is not including the use of a state controlled press to criminalize political opponents, but in its commonly understood meaning covers all occasions where the reputation of a person has been drastically affected by ostensibly non-political publications. The problem is more visible when the matters involve big names and celebrities. In such cases media reporting can swing popular sentiments either way.

The practice which has become more of a daily occurrence now is that of media trials. Something which was started to show to the public at large the truth about cases has now become a practice interfering dangerously with the justice delivery system. And it highlights the enormous need of what is called ‘responsible journalism’.

Impact of Media Trials

Though the media acts as a watchdog and creates a platform where the general public can know about the instances happening in society, it only leads to forming biases against one community or an individual. Media trials hinder the reputation of the alleged accused, causing a wrongful portrayal of him. It invades their privacy, creates prejudice in the viewers’ perception, and often destroys their whole career. 

Various Judges of Court have criticized the trial by media as it leads to psychological discrepancy while delivering any degree. Even the Supreme Court, in certain cases, has stated that such trial by the media and press leads to the miscarriage of justice. 

Contempt of Courts

The Constitution of India provides the right to a fair trial to every citizen vide Article 14, Article 19, Article 20, Article 21, and Article 22. Article 129 and Article 215 of the Indian Constitution plays a vital role. Thus, every citizen has a basic right to a fair trial, uninfluenced by external sources. 

Any publication which interferes with or obstructs any proceeding has been termed as contempt. Any such information published before the verdict of the court, any such acts that can mislead the public and violate the rights of the accused of a fair trial is a contempt under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Thus, a journalist publishing any information that might go against the ‘fair trial’ of the accused may be held liable for the court’s contempt. This kind of information may impair the neutrality of the court while delivering justice. 

In this context, an 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 Lal case whereby the duty and role played by the media while reporting a case was brought out stating that “Presumption of the 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.”

Conclusion 

In the current case of Sushant we should wait a little till the investigation gets complete. The content being publicized to the viewers are not under control. Any information against the law will come under the ambit of contempt. From the above-mentioned points, it can be said that the media has more of a negative influence than positive. Today’s media is all about TRP and sensationalization. Though it acts as a watchdog, court proceedings are not something to interfere with. Thus, the media should be properly regulated by the court and punished for violating any basic code of conduct. 

Source- 1. Lawctopus 2. SCC online