Jamwal Mahadeep Singh
Media means transmission tunnels through which news, entertainment, education, data, or advancing messages are publicized. It includes every broadcasting medium such as TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc. Indian media was active since the late 18th century with print media started in 1780, radio broadcasting initiated in 1927 and Television first came to India (named as ‘Doordarshan’) on Sept 15, 1959 (with a financial grant from UNESCO) as the National Television Network of India. As a public broadcaster, Doordarshan presented the news in naturalized manner. All controversial issues were pushed under the carpet. The critical and commercial success of TV was set by NDTV, when it for the history, televised coverage of the country’s general elections in 1989. There are currently 870 permitted private satellite television channels in India as of August 2018; out of that 403 are news channels. Media in India has been independent and free throughout its history. The Supreme Court of India has held that freedom of the press extends to engaging in uninhibited debate about the involvement of public figures in public issues and events. But, as regards their private life, a proper balancing of freedom of the press as well as the right of privacy and maintained defamation has to be performed in terms of the democratic way of life laid down in the Constitution. Therefore, in view of the observation made by the Supreme Court it is crystal clear that the freedom of the press flows from the freedom of expression which is guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution. Press stands on no higher footing than any other citizen and cannot claim any privilege as such, as distinct from those of any other citizen.
Media plays a vital role in molding the opinion of the society and it is skilful of changing the perfect frame of reference over which people identify various events. Freedom of speech plays a crucial role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. From late 20th century and early 21st century, to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt or innocence before, or after, a verdict in a court of law, a much word in public domain is ‘Trial by Media’. Its first inception was the phrase ‘Trial by Television’. During high-publicity court cases, the media are often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria. Heinous crimes must be condemned and the media would be justified in calling for the perpetrators to be punished in accordance with the law. However, the media cannot usurp the functions of the judiciary and deviate from objective and unbiased reporting. Even where a criminal court finds somebody guilty the media can still appear to sit in judgment over their sentence. But in its commonly understood meaning covers all occasions where the reputation of a person has been drastically affected, this amount to violating of civil rights of a citizen. Trial by media involves two aspects for introspection and debate and they can be summed up as ‘free press and free trial’. The freedom of the press stems from the right of the public in a democracy to be involved on the issues of the day, which affect them. At the same time, the “Right to Fair Trial”, i.e., a trial uninfluenced by extraneous pressures is recognized as a basic tenet of justice in India.
We come across number of decisions of the U.S Supreme Court confirming the potential dangerous impact the media could have upon trials. The U.S. Supreme Court set aside the conviction of a person, only on the grounds of denial of his constitutional rights of due process of law as during the pre-trial hearing extensive and obtrusive television coverage took place. The House of Lords in England (UK) too has agreed that media trials affect the judges despite the claim of judicial superiority over human frailty and it was observed that a man may not be able to put that which he has seen, heard or read entirely out of his mind and that he may be subconsciously affected by it. Media’s trial is just like awarding sentence before giving the verdict at the first instance. The court held that it is important to understand that any other authority cannot usurp the functions of the courts in a civilized society.
In India too there have been a plethora of cases in India on the point. Delhi High Court observed in a much talked case “It is said and to great extent correctly that through media publicity those who know about the incident may come forward with information, it prevents perjury by placing witnesses under public gaze and it reduces crime through the public expression of disapproval for crime and last but not the least it promotes the public discussion of important issues. All this is done in the interest of freedom of communication and right of information little realizing that right to a fair trial is equally valuable.” “Again it cannot be excluded that the public becoming accustomed to the regular spectacle of pseudo trials in the news media might in the long run have nefarious consequences for the acceptance of the courts as the proper forum for the settlement of legal disputes”.
Media has now reincarnated itself into a ‘public court’. It completely overlooks the vital gap between an accused and a convict keeping at stake the golden principles of ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ and ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’. Now, what we observe is media trial where the media itself does a separate investigation, builds a public opinion against the accused even before the court takes cognizance of the case. By this way, it prejudices the public and as a result the accused, that should be assumed innocent, is presumed as a criminal leaving all his rights and liberty unrepressed. If excessive publicity in the media about a suspect or an accused before trial prejudices a fair trial or results in characterizing him as a person who had indeed committed the crime, it amounts to undue interference with the “administration of justice”.
Provisions aimed at safeguarding this right are contained under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 (Contempt Jurisdiction-Power of Supreme Court and High Court to punish for Contempt of itself respectively) of the Constitution of India. Of particular concern to the media are restrictions which are imposed on the discussion or publication of matters relating to the merits of a case pending before a Court. A journalist may thus be liable for contempt of Court if he publishes anything which might prejudice a ‘fair trial’ or anything which impairs the impartiality of the Court to decide a cause on its merits, whether the proceedings before the Court be a criminal or civil proceeding.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])
Jamwal Mahadeep Singh