By Manasvi Bhatt, 5th Year Student, UPES Dehradun
On June 14, 2020 Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide and soon media trail started in this high-profile case. From giving a nepotism angle to drug angle, media stooped down to all the level to gain TRP. Media is not a new phenomenon, it is prevalent in our society from a long period of time. Media is one of the strongest institutions in any democratic country. It has the power to build someone’s reputation and can even malign someone’s. It is the fourth pillar of democracy and ensures transparency between the other three pillars that are judiciary, executive and legislature. It acts as a mirror to the society and ensures transparency between the three pillars. It makes people aware about the various socio-economic problem going in the country. The first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said- I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed a regulated press. Article 19(1) of the Indian constitution ensures the freedom of speech and expression given to every citizen but it has to be remembered that t comes with certain restrictions.
The basic and foremost role of media is to present the facts from both the side of the story to the people and leave on the people to form an opinion but now the media has changed their role and have become court rooms where they themselves present the case and give a judgement by beautifully ignoring the principles of natural of justice and the rights conferred by the constitution. Presumption of innocence until proven guilty and guilty beyond reasonable doubt are the principled which are used by the courts to determine the guilt of any person, media trails completely overlook these principles. What we observe in media trail is that they built a narrative and investigates and comes up with bizarre logics and proofs to prove someone guilty. Before the court takes cognizance, media has already given the judgement.
Impact on Society
Media plays a vital role in shaping the society. It has the power to change the opinion of people, therefore when a person is declared guilty in media trial, he loses his reputation even though he has been declared innocent by the court. There is a huge competition between media channels for TRP and to have the maximum number of viewers, a channel stoops down the lowest to present such news that attract people. The most controversial cases are always the victim of media trails. From Jessia Lal case to Aarushi Talwar case and to Sushant Singh Rajput case media has played their role in investigation and giving judgement. While it is the duty of media to raise voice when injustice is done and in some cases their efforts have been fruitful and exposed some criminals but, in many cases, they pronounce judgment even before the court and many a times without any substantial ground.
Constitutionality of Media Trails
Freedom of media
Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). Supreme Court has recognized freedom of media under the umbrella of Article 19(1)(a).
In Re:Harijai Singh and Anr and in Re Vijay KumarSupreme Court decided the scope of freedom of press and recognized it as an essential prerequisite of a democratic form of government and considered it as the mother of all liberties in a democratic society. In Hamdard Dawakhana v. UOI the court stated that the trail by media is opposite to rule of law but as media is one of the pillars of democracy their freedom of speech cannot be retrenched but certain restrictions can be imposed. A balance should be maintained between freedom of press and rule of law.
Immunity under contempt of court act, 1971
Under this act, pre-trail publications are given immunity against contempt proceedings. If any publication hampers or interferes or tend to hamper the court proceedings, be it civil or criminal, shall constitute the contempt of court. Such publications may be contempt because they affect the right of accused of fair trial. They mislead the public and declare someone guilty even before the court. In the famous double murder case of Aarushi Talwar, media declared that the parents were killed her and Hemraj even before the court could act upon it. And the same thing happened in Sushant Singh Case, where media declared Rhea Chakraborty is guilty even before the court could take cognizance. These two are the classic examples where media has gone berserk and pointed fingers even before arrests were made. Despite of the grave threat this publication possesses to judicial and administration system, they are given immunity. Because of such immunity press has a free hand to print or show whatever narrative they feel like showing in colorful pictures.
Media Trial v. Fair Trial
A fair trail always upholds the principle of natural justice and fundamental rights of person. It makes sure that accused is given proper legal representation and all the rights of accused given by the constitution are kept in mind. A fair trail is based on two golden principles presumption of innocence until proven guilty and guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Article 14 ensures equality before law and Article 21 ensures right to life. Right to free trail is ensured under Article 21. Media trail often overlook these fundamental rights and make allegations rather judgement about the accused. Media trail often while exercising their right of freedom of press violates the right of fair trial. Media trail is biased in nature as it favors a particular party and doesn’t show the other side of the story. Thus, they influence the opinion of the people. Apart from being biased in nature, the culprit in media trail is harassed on television and social media. The accused is portrayed in a way that people sees him as a criminal even though he is not proved guilty in eyes of law.
The government plays a major role in media trail. In a country, where government has control over the media, where media can’t ask questions to the government or speak against them, then the focus shifts on these trails. They serve the news which is sensational in nature and which will somewhere emotionally hurt the sentiments of the people and by going this the attention is drawn from the real issues. The news channel will telecast such news which will help in the propaganda of the government.
Law Commission Report
In its 200th report under the title: “Trail by Media: Free Speech and Fair Trial under Criminal Procedure Code, 1973”, the commission deals with aspects like freedom of press, freedom of fair trail and freedom of speech. The commission expresses concern over the fact that there is little restraint in media where criminal cases are concerned. Therefore, in light of this the commission had recommended a law to debar the media from printing anything which is prejudicial to the rights of accused in criminal cases. The commission also highlighted the fact that media should realize that right to freedom to speech which is guaranteed by the constitution is not absolute in nature, it comes with reasonable restrictions.
Media trails are nothing but a mockery of justice where a person is denied his basic fundamental rights and without even hearing his side of story, he is declared guilty in eyes of public. Media is supposed to be the voice of public. It is supposed to stand with the people and asks the questions to the government. It is clear that media trial has more negative impact than positive impact. The competition of having more viewers or the greed of TRP has turned the media blind from its basic duty. The government control of the media hampers the social fabric of the country. Where the media is not allowed to ask question to the government or even write anything against the government, then it is just a puppet in their hands. They only serve the content which will distract the people from the real issues. The watchdogs of the democracy have now become the watchdogs of the government. For the democracy to work in the true sense it is necessary that the media must be independent from any constraints from the government and they should act in due diligence. The greedy media will kill the democracy and the brunt will be faced by the common people. It is the media’s responsibility to ensure that administration of justice is not undermined. The problem also lies with the audience. The indifference audience who likes to watch spiced up things more than the real news and who are brain washed by the media housed will continue to watch such trails daily and the media will serve them daily. Ultimately it is the audience who decide what they want to watch.
 (1966) 6 SCC 466, paras 8,9, 10
 1960 (2) SCR 671