Legal reporting in India has been going downhill for some time now, except for few occasional moments of glory (Jessica Lal murder case), the media has put itself on a pedestal and went on a rampage of putting a label on everything it comes across. Once again in the recent case of a well-known businessman Navneet Kalra, it has not failed to leave its mark. The entrepreneur, who owns stores such as Khan Chacha and Dayal Opticals, has been accused of stockpiling, black marketing, and overcharging for oxygen concentrators. Everything from the Concentrators’ legitimacy to his authorization to deal in them is still up for debate in a Delhi Magistrate’s court. However, the all-knowing social media sources, have already found him guilty and moved on to prove his connections with a particular political party.
This particular instance is only one of a slew of recent incidents in which the legal community has been left disappointed by the quality of legal reporting. The media has lost sight of the significance of the word ‘accused’ in India’s criminal justice system and has taken on the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Without delving into the merits of the case, it’s apparent as day that the media has assumed his guilt and is out to hang his political supporters. Even worse, this is far from a one-time occurrence of reckless reporting of legal cases. This trend reached new lows in the instance of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, when the Bombay High Court labelled certain networks’ reporting prima facie contemptuous and issued strict orders on all future reporting in the case.
Courts on Media Trial
Looking back at what the apex court had to say about such trials in the case of RK Anand vs Registrar[i], it defined media trial as ‘any type of coverage, publication in print or electronic mode that generates a bias in the minds of viewers/readers regardless of any court of law judgement’. This renders a fair trial impossible and jeopardises the life of the accused. There have been numerous cases where media trials have impeded legal proceedings, namely the cases of KM Nanavati, Arushi Talwar, Priyadarshini Mattoo, Sheena Bora, and others. Furthermore, In Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd. v. SEBI[ii], the Hon’ble Supreme Court, emphasizing such high-profile cases in the past, stated that sensational media reportage had harmed fair trials and investigations.
In the case of Shyam Singh v. the State of Rajasthan[iii], it was held that the question was not whether a bias had affected the judgement, but rather whether it had actually changed the verdict. The underlying question is whether there is a context in which a litigant could fairly believe that a judicial officer’s bias played a role in the case’s final result. While expediting the trial, the trial judge was subjected to political pressure, societal pressure, and prejudicial media reports; this is an example of a situation in which there is a significant risk of prejudice.
Moreover, in Saibal Kumar Gupta v. B. K. Sen[iv], the Supreme Court ruled that the media cannot participate in a private investigation into an ongoing case and publish their reports on the arrested person. The basic view is that such actions tend to interfere with the course of justice, prejudicing either the accused or the prosecution, and that tribunal trials must be avoided.
Legal reporting has the opportunity to not only inform but also educate the public on legal provisions that they may not be familiar with. A general explanation of the legal matter at hand and the current stage of the trial can go a long way toward calming the public’ collective frenzy. Our criminal justice system is founded on the premise that everyone accused of a crime is “innocent until proven guilty,” and that guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court has stated unequivocally that media trials are the opposite of the rule of law and influence judges’ subconscious. A journalist’s responsibility is to report on a case rather than to judge it, and the right to freedom of the press must be balanced against the right to privacy of those involved.
Although the higher judiciary is vested with powers of Contempt under the Contempt of Court Act of 1971 and Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution, which can be used against defaulting reporters, these powers are highly discretionary and rarely used, and they can’t make up for the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework.
The Press Council of India (PCI) was established to preserve the freedom of the press and to improve the standards of news reporting in India. According to the Press Council Act of 1978, if a person believes a news organisation has engaged in professional misconduct, the PCI can “warn, admonish, or censure the newspaper,” or order the newspaper to “publish the contradiction of the complainant in its forthcoming issue,” if they agree with the complainant. Given that these procedures can only be used after news materials have been published and that they do not entail particularly severe penalties, their effectiveness in preventing the dissemination of unfair information appears to be limited. Moreover, the norms for journalist conduct cannot be legally enforced, and are largely observed in the breach.
The media has to be properly regulated by the Courts. There must be some form of appropriate self-restriction or regulation over its arena, and proper attention should be placed on a fair trial and court procedures must be respected with an adequate sense of responsibility. The media should acknowledge the fact that whatever they publish has a great impact on the spectator. As a result, it is the moral responsibility of the media to present the truth and to do so at the appropriate moment.
The issue is not with the media exposing a flaw in anything the government or its officials do, but with the media acting outside of its legitimate jurisdiction and doing what it is not supposed to do. The media trial has now moved on to media verdict and media punishment which is unquestionably an illegal use of freedom and a breach of the prudent demarcation of legal boundaries.
The media and the court are two of democracy’s most important pillars and natural allies, complementing one another in the pursuit of a successful democracy. In a democracy, both the court and the media have specific responsibilities. The democracy will be successful if these two foundations work concurrently, but not together. The judiciary should neither be influenced by the media nor be given a chance to get influenced.
“The demi-world of journalism is like the fun house of mirrors that one finds in carnivals. In one reflection you are too fat; in another you are absurdly thin; in another reflection you appear to have an elongated neck; in another, a flat head,- in still another you have next to nobody. Yet there you are, standing in front of these bizarre reflections, fully formed and hearing little resemblance to any of the images before you. The difference is, however, that unlike the fun house of mirrors, the distortions of the media are rarely a joke” –John Hofess
So, let’s not joke around.
[i] RK Anand vs Registrar, Delhi High Court (2009) 8 SCC 106
[ii]Sahara India Real Estate Corpn. Ltd. v. SEBI, (2012) 10 SCC 603
[iii] Shyam Singh v. the State of Rajasthan 1973 Cri LJ 441
[iv] Saibal Kumar Gupta and Ors. v. B.K. Sen and Anr AIR 1961 SC 633