Written By – Aabir Shoaib
“At the same time judges should not be swayed by the emotional pitch of public opinion either, which is getting amplified through social media platforms. Judges have to be mindful of the fact that the noise thus amplified is not necessarily reflective of what is right and what the majority believes in. The new media tools that have enormous amplifying ability are incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, and the real and fake.
Therefore, media trials cannot be a deciding factor in deciding cases.”
- Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana.
Internet access has significantly aided the division that has emerged in the form of liberal and conservative publications. It would be naive to believe that the media has remained a textbook quasi-institution. It would be an irony to claim that it exists without prejudices. Left or right, liberal or conservative, the ideals of two sides are today stretched to their limits and corrupted from their genuine essence. The ethics are tossed out the window by succumbing toa political, ideological, and sometimes monetary prejudice. Sometimes, the media only profits itself and a few corporations by spreading unverified and deceptive information. News stations frequently develop storylines in which they play as judge, jury, and executioner in cases that are still pending. If we delve a little deeper and attempt to define what today is referred to as ‘Media Trial’ as we have seen over a number of cases and situations especially in the past year, we come across a variety of perspectives, but in my opinion, the simplest and yet dynamic definition of it was a given by Ray Surette. According to Ray Surette “Media trials are defined as certain regional or national news ‘events’ in which the criminal justice system is co-opted by the media as a source of high drama and entertainment.”
Whenever a critical issue is brought before the court, there is an expected rise in interest among the public. Always on the lookout for exciting news, the media, including newspapers, television stations, and news websites, begin posting their own versions of events. It’s known as investigative journalism, and it’s legal in India. “Media Trial” or “Trial by Media” refers to the impact of media coverage on an individual via newspapers and television in developing an impression of innocence or guilt before a court of law delivers its decision. The media has now evolved into a sort of “public court” that has begun to intervene in court processes. The media entirely ignores the crucial gap between the convict and the accused by putting the core principles of “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” and “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” on the line. What is now being watched is a second probe conducted by the
media, entails establishing public opinion against the suspect or accused even before the court takes notice of the matter, in addition to inquiry.
Media Trial and Sensationalization of Cases.
In the year of 2020 alone, the country saw a good number cases which were ruthlessly over-sensationalized. The most prominent of them were Nizamuddin Markaz (a.k.a. TablighiJamaat Markaz) and the death of Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. In the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz case, it was correctly and well accepted that when a pandemic was taking
thousands of lives, the Tablighi Jamaat meeting at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz should have been cancelled. However, the way it was shamelessly exploited to generate unabashed communalism on social media and television channels had a single goal: to give the fight against coronavirus a communal hue. In those days, the term “Corona jihad” was one of the top trending topics on Twitter. The condemnation parade was fuelled by BJP officials such as Gautam Gambhir, B.L. Santhosh, and Sambit Patra, who warned of a “catastrophe of mammoth proportions” due to “criminal carelessness.” In the face of the pandemic, religious institutions were careless; for example, the Tirupati temple was open to thousands of devotees during the Tablighi congregation, yet particular Muslims’ negligence has been
portrayed with frightening ideological intentions. The introductory statement of Arnab Goswami on Republic TV can be cited here since it paralleled the portrayal of the incident as a Muslim conspiracy to destabilise India on most English and Hindi news stations. “They made fun our national effort. They have harmed us all; we were just winning when they went out of their way to defeat us,” Goswami raged. There was no doubt that “they” here represented Muslims. If that wasn’t apparent enough, our communal virus’s “super-spreader” drew a line from “suffering citizens of India dying in ambulances from traffic jams caused by Shaheen Bagh” for months to “dying because of the Tablighi Jamaat’s sole ambition to spread the coronavirus in our country.” According to one popular anchor, the Jamaatis were spitting from their buses, implying that they were trying to infect others. Without scapegoats and targets, there is no longer any Indian nationalism. If there is no such thing as a “Muslim villain” in a national conflict, one must invent one. Anti-Muslim hatred appears to be the sole thing binding Indian society together, rather than any shared values or goals. The national unity sparked by the ‘Janta Curfew’ quickly fizzled without the Muslim enemy. In another attempt of a reckless and ruthless media following the suicide death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a well-known Indian actor, news reporting outlets reported on the matter in a dire state of affairs. The reporting by such news outlets impeded the investigation, which was critical to the administration of justice. In this particular case, the accused, who is also an
actress, is accused of aiding and abetting the actor’s suicide. Despite the fact that the matter was being investigated by a number of agencies, she was relentlessly attacked by news outlets. The crazed media coverage of her life and the death of the actor had real-world ramifications, including a virtual smear campaign without evidence. The actress and her brother were probed by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) after being suspected of a drug scandal by most mainstream media outlets. As soon as NCB filed a First Information Report under the respective provisions of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985, she was remanded to judicial detention. Despite the NCB’s inquiry, she was nevertheless referred to as the “witch who pushed her boyfriend to death” by the media. Her reputation was ruined by the press assassinating her character, all based on their own fiction. After spending a month in Byculla jail after the NCB arrested the actress and her brother, she was finally released. And the media continues to exploit Rajput’s death in order to peddle a false reality. Of course, the accused has legal recourse if these meticulous and slanderous words are repeated, but the damage has already been done.
Media Trials and its Impact on the Judiciary
The Right to a fair trial is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which is regarded a part of the right to life and liberty. The core meaning of “Right to Fair Trial” is that a trial should not be influenced by external factors, which is regarded as a fundamental concept of Indian law. In our democracy, the judicial system follows the principle of “presumption of innocence,” which means that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction. The purpose of the media is to objectively disseminate news, which means that they should not pass judgement on any issue and should simply report the facts. Printed and digital media are currently locked in a never-ending battle for sales and TRPs (Television Rating Points), respectively. The Press Council of India instructs the mainstream press not to give the victim, accused, or witnesses undue exposure, and also not to reveal any sensitive information that could obstruct or affect the inquiry process. It is also important that the press not identify any witness because this raises the likelihood of them becoming hostile, and that the media not undertake any twin trial of the
case that puts undue pressure on the Judge adjudicating the case. India’s judicial system is primarily adversarial, with certain aspects of the inquisitorial system. In most circumstances, the court acts as a neutral mediator between the prosecution and the defence. The Indian media has adequate latitude and time to develop false scenarios and partially assessed conclusions due to the pace with which a trial goes in India. While the court is thought to be immune to media manipulation, the judges and lawyers are just like the rest of us. While judges may distance themselves from such coverage, it is difficult to avoid subconsciously succumbing to media manipulation. It’s very tough because it surrounds us through all means, and it’s particularly more challenging in cases that have received major
It is true that the media is obligated to report on matters of public interest, but the media must now consider whether or not an item or comment crosses the line of press freedom and into the arena of media trial. The judiciary and the media are different entities with distinct functions that do not intersect. One cannot and must not use the other to carry out its responsibilities. The media should only perform journalistic tasks and not serve as a special agency for the court. Due to the prejudiced nature of certain media, freedom of speech and expression gets affected since it interferes with the administration of justice. There have been countless occasions where the media has been blamed and accused of conducting the accused’s trial by issuing a “Verdict” based on their findings prior to the Court’s decision. It is critical that the trial be conducted by the Court rather than the media. The media trial is unquestionably an unwarranted intrusion into the judicial process. The most effective strategy to regulate the media is to use contempt of court to punish those who violate the fundamental code of conduct. The Supreme Court has permitted the use of contempt powers by courts against publications and media outlets in a number of cases. The media’s freedom of speech and expression cannot be allowed to go so far as to jeopardise the trial itself.