Media – the fourth pillar of our democracy, plays the crucial role of a watchdog and is supposed to hold up a mirror to society. But in recent times, it has been facing a lot of criticism, especially in its reporting of criminal case trials. Recently, Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna extended support to senior IPS officer DIG Sunil Paraskar, who was accused of rape by a Mumbai-based model. It also questioned whether it has become fashionable to level rape charges. So should the media stay away from reporting trials of criminal cases that may directly or indirectly lead to an interference in the court's judgment?
Article 19 (1 )(a) of the Indian Constitution gives us freedom of expression, but at the same time, Article 19(2)-(6), permits the legislature to impose reasonable legislative restriction for various matters, one of which is the fair administration of justice as protected by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
The media enjoys freedom in publishing information about criminal cases. But often, in the rush to attract eyeballs through breaking news and exclusive stories, the print and electronic media end up maligning the image of mere suspects or a person alleged to have committed the crime. The accused are projected in a way that in the eye of the public, they are guilty well before they are tried in court.
The Law Commission in its 200th report, Trial by Media: Free Speech versus Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971), has recommended a law to debar the media from reporting anything prejudicial to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, from the time of arrest to investigation and trial. The commission also stated, "Today there is a feeling that in view of the extensive use of the television and cable services, the whole pattern of publication of news has changed and several such publications are likely to have a prejudicial impact on the suspects, accused, witnesses and even judges and in general on the administration of justice".
Highlighting one-sided allegations and taking the easy route of just fuelling public outrage without trying to unearth what actually happened can be very damaging. Even before being proved guilty in the court of law, the accused is painted as guilty. But in the event that he/she is proved innocent, the media hardly highlights the acquittal compared to the coverage given when the charges were leveled.
Though there are cases such as the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, the Jessica Lal case, the Nitish Katara murder case and the Bijal Joshi rape case, which would have gone unpunished if the media had not stepped up their coverage, there are also cases like the Malegaon blast and the Maria Susairaj case where the media pointed fingers at innocent persons, conveniently forgetting the virtues of accuracy, truth, fairness and balanced reporting.
In 2014, filmmaker Madhur Bhandharkar was accused of rape by a model, but the Supreme Court ultimately quashed charges against him after nine years. In another case, a woman in Indore accused her landlord of rape after a dispute over the payment of rent due to which the landlord committed suicide. But he was ultimately pronounced innocent and the court awarded a sentence of four years and a fine of Rs 11,000 to the woman for levelling false rape charges against her landlord. In the case of Kurshid Anwar, executive director of the Institute for Social Democracy (ISD), the rape charges levelled against him led him to commit suicide in December 2013. Senior Journalist Saeed Naqvi had said at the time that he felt that Anwar, a JNU scholar, was forced to take the extreme step due to the "mental trauma and public humiliation" caused by the "media trial" which targeted him without his version and process of law. Adding his opinion on the case of former Tehelka editor-in-chief of Tarun Tejpal, Naqvi had said, “None of us knew what what happened in the lift, but the media proved him (Tejpal) an accused even before the court has done so. For over three weeks the media was carrying Tejpal's news 24x7.”
However, senior journalist Milind Kokje says, “Newspapers should avoid writing in favour of the accused in any case and particularly be more sensitive in rape cases.”
On the other hand, in the Arushi Talwar murder case, apart from the police, the media drew serious criticism for shoddy and insensitive reporting that made several insinuations on the character of the victim as well as her parents when the trial was underway.
The Press Council of India in its principal and ethics has also clearly stated that, “The press shall eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, misleading or distorted material. All sides of the core issue or subject should be reported. Unjustified rumors and surmises should not be set forth as facts.” But this certainly seems to be a rarity these days. Free and fair trial is increasingly becoming extremely difficult due to wrong editorial calls by certain media organisations.
In most western countries, there are restrictions on the coverage of criminal cases to ensure that juries are not influenced, and that the accused gets a fair trial. But in India, while there is no jury system, trial by media can lead to drumming up of sentiment against the accused, and that goes against the grain of a fair trial.