Media Trials & TRPs: “Justice may not be done, but only Screened to be done”
If we go by the dictionary meaning, the word ‘media’ (i.e. plural of ‘medium’) signifies the means of communication. With the advent of human civilization and with progressive technological advancement, people’s channels of communication have drastically evolved from ‘engravings to scriptures’, from ‘paper to newspaper’ and today, in the 21st century, to the worldwide web i.e. the internet. In its every process of revolution, one purpose has always remained uniform i.e. expression of people’s thoughts.
Scope, however, has widened and the accessibility to such ‘media’ is now rooted in the lives of teenagers to daily wage earners. Everyone can now access and communicate their ideas (whether tolerating or aggravating) world-wide. This is ‘media’ in its most common sense. The author’s subject, however, involves its connotation in the most practical sense which means media as an institution. With the engineering of democracy in India, people became sovereign and their freedom of speech and expression became not merely a tool to communicate their ideas but also a weapon (a weapon which was meant to shield them against the arbitrariness of corrupt system and institutions).
A man’s thoughts are best expressed in words which words are, today screened (though purportedly at times) by institutions of journalism including print, television, radio, internet. Journalism connotes mass gathering of information, facts, truth, and their consequent circulation or distribution to the masses and public at large in the society. The freedom of speech and expression of a man became the freedom of journalism. However, this was not absolute. The Constitution of India provides for Article 19(1)(a) which gives its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression subject to certain reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offense.
At this juncture, narrowing down to the author’s subject relating to trials, it becomes pertinent to know what ‘trials’ are. Black’s Law of Dictionary (9th Edition) gives the word trial the following meaning- “a formal judicial examination of evidence and determination of legal claims in an adversary proceeding”. In most commonly used meaning, it is a hearing before the court of justice where the evidence is taken. Interestingly, neither the Constitution of India nor any law being in force confers the institutions of media with the power to hold and conduct trials.
Rather, any parallel proceedings where evidence get examined by the institutions (which were mainly brought up to voice the public opinion) would only prejudice the cases before even the verdict comes out by the court of law or if not, would tend to scandalize or lower the authority of the court or if not, would interfere with the administration of justice.
Here, it becomes pertinent to know that the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 provides two types of contempt i.e. civil contempt and criminal contempt. Section 2(c) of the Act defines criminal contempt i.e.
“criminal contempt” means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which—
(i) scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner;
We have to be clear that the Constitution of India makes India be a country governing its people and institutions by the rule of law without any exception. Notwithstanding the facts and circumstances of each case that media tries, pending litigation in courts, every media trial would further tantamount to the contempt of court and in violations of law. This inference is without prejudice to the ill-effects and damages that the media might bring to the administration of smooth adjudication of cases by the courts of law.
Here, it becomes noteworthy to extract the following observations of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in R.K. Anand v. Delhi High Court (2009) 8 SCC 106:
“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. During high publicity 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 impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial, in public perception the accused is already held guilty and would not be able to live the rest of their life without intense public scrutiny.”
These objectively assessed observations most descriptively lay the foundation for deriving another destructive principle of ‘Let any innocent be convicted, but one accused should not be acquitted’. The public opinion in our country is quite vulnerable to the influence that media creates by its cohesive wave of information or news. Such influence pointing to the guilt of the accused on-air results not only in the desolation of the accused in the society but also creates a stigma which attaches to him throughout his life regardless of his innocence. Isn’t this against the tenets on which the media was established?
How then can one justify the trials when the entire concept of media trials goes not only against the purpose of media but also in evident violation of the supreme law. This ultimately becomes a quagmire of over-reaching by the media where “Justice may not be done, but should be ‘screened’ to be done”. The judicial jurisprudence fails where the basic principles of natural justice such as “Let hundred accused be acquitted, but one innocent should not be convicted” and “Justice may not only be done but should seem to be done” becomes mere by-watchers.
Legally, an accused (who is nevertheless innocent until proven guilty) has rights and remedies to approach the higher courts in appeals, revisions, special leave petitions, but what remedy avails with him or her in cases where the people's opinion has judged him guilty. Does media take any liability or responsibility to remove such influence or stigma if subsequently, the court, finds the accused innocent after a full-fledged trial? The answer is no.
To reason this, attention can be drawn to a recent tussle, as projected by media, of a Kashmiri family including 4 women residing in Delhi’s Siddharth Extension colony area thrashed by a mob of 30-40 residents because of the victim’s allegations that they were Kashmiri. This was protruded to give a politicized and communal angle which even led Omar Abdullah to tweet that Kashmiris are blamed for feeling alienated questioning what else one can expect from them when they see fellow Kashmiris treated like this outside the Valley. Most of the television media were busy sensationalizing until it turned out there was another story to this picture that the same was not a case of people being beaten because they are ‘Kashmiris’ but because it was a case of argument over dog menace in the colony for last many months which became a nightmare for residents. Cops registered FIR as well.
In another case of the murder of seven-year-old Pradyuman, of Ryan International School, we again witnessed the failure of justice at the hands of media. News channels even solved the case and branded the driver, Ashok as guilty and a death sentence was passed against him without a trial thereby turning the public against him on account of his so-called “barbarity”. To everyone’s surprise, it later turned out that Ashok was not the accused but as per CBI, some class 11th students of the same school killed the victim. There are other instances as well which go on to establish the harm-done by the media in conducting so-called trials.
Further, from the aforesaid, it can reasonably be inferred that media trials are more prone to sensationalizing news were only less than a fraction of news channels are covering areas needed for the development of people and the society. We hardly see any action by media taking the task at hand issues such as cleanliness, youth empowerment, women empowerment, and educational crisis. They are most interested in screening ‘masala’ stuff to attract viewers-ship and TRP’s. Facts and evidence of cases are twisted and the public is deliberately misled to believe something which they, had true contents have been screened or portrayed, would reasonably not believe.
More often, issues of public importance are given communal angle to attract an unnecessary public outcry thereby obviating any hope of harmonious political institutions including their public followers. Last but not the least, recent Cobrapost’s documentary titled as “Operation 136” even exposed few Indian media houses “willing to peddle Hindutva to communally polarize for electoral gains, and to defame political rivals as part of a malicious media campaign, for monetary benefits” shows disastrous impeding and consequent destruction of our unbiased media.
However, pointing out the aforesaid ill-effects of media does not intend to discourage the efforts of media in assisting the judiciary in cases like Jessica Lal's case or Priyadarshini Mattoo’s case in reopening of the trial, where we witnessed the power of masses and the true strength of the democratic institution. The same, to an extent, is true to the Sushant Singh Rajput Case where due to its effective investigative journalism, the matter is now being investigated thoroughly by India’s top agencies, though the author discourages the efforts of media to sensationalize or name-shaming of the accused. In other words, Media’s role should not be underplayed but their assistance should not be misconstrued to make them the ‘judges’.
Lastly, the author would conclude by extracting certain journalistic ethics as per the Report of 1954 by the Press Commission of India as a reminder to the media houses of their duty and role which nowadays are rarely existing:
i. As the press is a primary instrument in the creation of public opinion journalists should regard their calling as a trust and be ready and willing to serve and guard the public interest.
ii. In the discharge of their duties, journalists shall attach due value to fundamental, human, and social rights and shall hold good faith and fair play in news reports and comments as essential professional obligations
iii. Freedom in the honest collection and publication of news and facts and the right of fair comment and criticism are principles that every journalist should always defend.
iv. Journalists shall observe due to restraint in reports and comments which are likely to aggravate tensions likely to lead to violence.
v. Journalists shall endeavour to ensure that information is factually accurate. No fact shall be distorted and no essential facts shall be suppressed. No information known to be false or not believed to be true shall be published.
vi. Responsibility shall be assumed for all information and comment published; if responsibility is disclaimed, this shall be explicitly stated beforehand.
vii. Unconfirmed news shall be identified and treated as such.
viii. Confidence shall always be respected and professional secrecy preserved but it shall not be regarded as a breach of the Code if the source of information is disclosed in matters coming up before the Press Council or courts of law.
ix. The journalist shall not allow personal interest to influence professional conduct.
x. Any report found to be inaccurate and any comment based on inaccurate reports shall be voluntarily rectified. It shall be obligatory to give fair publicity to a correction or contradiction when a report published is false or inaccurate in material particulars.
xi. All persons engaged in the gathering, transmission, and dissemination of news and comments thereon shall seek to maintain public confidence in the integrity and dignity of their profession. They shall assign and accept only such tasks as are compatible with this integrity and dignity; and they shall guard against exploitation of their status.
xii. There is nothing so unworthy as the acceptance or demand of a bribe or inducement for the exercise by a journalist of his power to give or deny publicity to news or comment.
xiii. The carrying on of personal controversies in the press, where no public issue is involved, is unjournalistic and derogatory to the dignity of the profession.
xiv. It is unprofessional to give currency in the press to rumour or gossip affecting the private life of individuals. Even verifiable news affecting individuals shall not be published unless public interests demand their publication.
xv. Calumny and unfounded accusations are serious professional offenses.
xvi. Plagiarism is also a serious professional offense.
xvii. In obtaining news or pictures, reporters and press photographers shall do nothing that will cause pain or humiliation to innocent, bereaved or otherwise distressed persons.”[i]
Adhering to the above principles, we should never forget that the Media, has emerged from the cocoon of ‘public opinion’ and has a big role to play in the positive reformation of the society as an institution, and now as the fourth organ of the State.
1. http://www.livelaw.in/trial-by-media/ by Justice V. Ramkumar
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This blog has been authored by Mr. Bharat Garg, who is a Practicing Advocate at The High Court of Judicature at Delhi.
[PUBLICATION NO. TLG_BLOG_20_9504]