The professionalism and ethics of the media are constantly questioned when taking sides in a lawsuit and pleading the accused guilty even before the court starts the trial
By Abhilash Kumar Singh
The media play a key role in shaping and changing the views of society. However, it is pertinent to examine his professionalism and ethics, considering that trials with the media are often conducted by various means. There have been many instances where the media had picked up the cases and found a defendant guilty even before the court had given his decision. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is one of them.
#Sorrybabu was trending last week on Twitter. The context was that someone from the Karni Sena organization overheard Sushant’s alleged girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, say “Sorry Babu” when she went to the morgue to see his dead body. And people decided that he was apologizing for killing him. A few days ago, some news channels decided that Sushant was not in depression because she was wishing a friend good luck on WhatsApp and asking him to take care of him.
Some notorious cases would have led the court to declare the accused innocent. Two of these are the Jessica Lal murder case, 2010, and the Bijal Joshi rape case, 2005. Media trials have led to widespread coverage of the accused’s guilt and led to a certain perception of him. It created hysteria among viewers in high-profile cases, making fair judgment nearly impossible for the trial.
The history of media trials dates back to the 20th century. In the case of American silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1921), accused of the death of a woman, he was acquitted by the court, but lost his reputation and his job after the media found him “guilty”. Another famous case is the trial of former National Football League player, broadcaster and actor OJ Simpson who was tried and acquitted of two counts of murder on June 12, 1994, the death of his ex-wife, Nicole. Brown Simpson, and his friend Ron. Goldman. But the media influenced viewers’ minds and found Simpson guilty. The media trials resulted in the unfair portrayal of the accused and helped destroy their careers.
The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression pursuant to Article 19 (1), namely the right to have opinions without any interference and the freedom to seek, receive, transmit information, ideas of any kind regardless of borders, both orally, whether in writing, or even in paper format, or in any form of art, or through any other medium chosen by the person. This is also subject to special duties and responsibilities and the rights or reputation of others.
Freedom of the media is the freedom of people as they should be informed on public matters. It is therefore needless to stress that a healthy and free press is indispensable for the functioning of democracy. In a democratic order, there must be an active participation of people in all affairs of their community and the state. It is their right to be kept informed about current political, social, economic and cultural life, as well as burning topics and important issues of the day, in order to allow them to consider forming a broad opinion in which they are managed, addressed and administered. by the government and their officials.
To achieve this, people need a clear and truthful account of events, so they can form their own opinion and offer comments and views on these issues and select their future course of action. However, freedom is not absolute as it is bound by sub-clause (2) of Article 19 (1). However, the right to freedom of speech and expression does not encompass the freedom to commit contempt of court.
In some cases, the Supreme Court has stated that trials with the press, electronic media, social media or any public agitation are cases that could be described as antithesis to the general rule of law, leading to judicial error.
Under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, any publication that interferes with, hinders or tends to hinder any proceeding, whether civil or criminal, and the course of justice, which is in fact a pending proceeding, constitutes contempt of court. It has been termed contempt because some of the acts that are published prior to the court verdict may mislead the public and undermine the rights of the accused to a fair trial.
In the 2008 Aarushi Talwar murder case, the media had pleaded who was guilty even before the trial began. There were mass protests and the public was hysterical at the news claiming that her parents were the cause of her death.
A reporter can be held accountable for contempt of court when he decides to publish anything that would go against “due process” for the defendant or that would undermine the impartiality of the court during any proceedings. The right to a fair trial is an absolute right granted to any individual under Articles 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution.
Media trials also pressured lawyers not to deal with cases in which the public finds certain individuals guilty without actually being proven. This forces the accused to withdraw his right to have a lawyer. Hiring the media violates the accused’s right to a fair trial and his right to a good lawyer.
All news channels are looking for TRPs and no one actually wants to get justice for the accused. It is time for the media to be regulated to maintain the strict standards and ethics of journalism. If not, criminal provisions should apply. When the government can regulate movies, why not the media? The right to the free press is valid only to the extent that the interests of the public for which the news is served.
The media are the cornerstone of our democracy which works for the greater interest of society, but the legal process in any matter should not be hindered. The mandate of the press is limited to putting a question in the conscience of society without any presumption. Courts are the right forum for such decisions and must be allowed to function without spreading prejudice in public opinion. The right to a fair and free trial under Article 21 must be respected.
—The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India
Main image: Rhea Chakraborty. Photo credit: Instagram