Guest post: Trial by Media: Violation of Right to Reputation?

[This is a guest-post by Swati Singh, 4th year Student at ILS Law College, Pune, who is also a columnist at Constitutional Renaissance Blog. This article is a part of series where the author analyses Article 19 vis-a-vis recent events.]

Introduction- What is a Media Trial?

In India, Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy. The media provides the public with information by its reporting and commentary on the ongoing social and public events in the society. Media acts as a watchdog that helps create awareness and aids in formation of opinion for the laymen and helps in moulding their perception of an event. Media Trial means the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt irrespective of whatever is the verdict in the court of law. With the advent of technology in recent times, media’s presence has been ubiquitous. Media trials occur when the media houses start acting as “public courts” or “Janta Adalat” and start interfering with the proceedings of a case. Media may subtly or overtly give their verdict on a case, ignoring the crucial difference between an “accused” and a “convict” thereby disregarding the principle “innocent until proven guilty.”

Freedom of press and Indian Constitution

Freedom of press as a standalone right doesn’t exist under the Indian Constitution. However, it is implicit under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution which provides for freedom of speech and expression for all citizens of India. This fundamental right is enshrined in the Constitution to protect the democratic values of the country. Freedom of speech and expression freedom to express in oral or writing, one’s thoughts, opinions, ideas and beliefs. Freedom of press isn’t exclusively mentioned in the Constitution as it was made clear by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during the Constituent Assembly debates that no special mention of the freedom of press was necessary at all as the press and an individual or a citizen were the same as far as their right of expression was concerned. 

In the case of  Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras, the Supreme Court held  that freedom of speech and that of the press lay at the foundation of a democratic society, and without free political discussions, no public education is possible, which is important for the proper functioning of the government. It was observed by Justice Patanjali Sastri in the case that the freedom of speech and expression includes propagation of ideas, and that freedom was ensured by the freedom of circulation. The Supreme Court, through various cases has made it clear that right to speech and expression clearly includes the right to publish and circulate one’s ideas, beliefs and opinions through any mode of publication (it has been discussed on this blog extensively – check here). 

In In Re: Harijai Singh and Anr. and In Re: Vijay Kumar , the Supreme Court while deciding upon the scope of the freedom of press, recognized it as “an essential prerequisite of a democratic form of government” and regarded it as “the mother of all other liberties in a democratic society”.

Right to reputation and Media Trials

Freedom of speech isn’t a sacrosanct, absolute right and is subject to reasonable restrictions. These restrictions can be for varied reasons including the grounds of right to privacy, right to reputation, contempt of court etc. Every person has the fundamental right to reputation in the same manner as they have the right to freedom of speech. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution includes the right of a person to live with dignity which also comprises the right to reputation.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protect the right of reputation of an individual by stating that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Article 19 of ICCPR further emphasises this right by stating that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression but it shall be subject to restrictions such as- respect for the right to reputation of someone. The UDHR is only a persuasive and not a legally binding instrument but India has ratified ICCPR and thus, is bound to follow the Covenant. However, no express and consequent legislation has been made in India with this regard. 

Media derives its right of publication from Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution but when a statement harms the reputation of a person it is said to be defamation. In India, defamation is considered both a civil wrong (tort) as well as a criminal wrong (Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code). Every criminal administration, across all democratic countries, also      ensures that an accused is given a fair trial. Right to fair trial in a criminal prosecution is an implied right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – as a fundamental right. A media trial jeopardises that right to fair trial of the accused, forgoing the principle of natural justice as well as also violating their right to reputation. 

In R. K. Anand v. Delhi High Court (2009) 8 SCC 106, The Apex Court stated that, “―the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person‘s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a court of law. During high publicity cases, the media are often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria akin to a lynch mob which not only makes a fair trial impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial, in public perception the accused is already held guilty and would not be able to live the rest of their life without intense public scrutiny.”

The justice delivery system in India being so excruciatingly slow, by the time the court pronounces a verdict, the media already disparages the image of not only the accused but also their family. There have been many instances where the media has passed its own verdict before the Court itself. In the infamous Jessica Lal case, when renowned lawyer Ram Jethmalani decided to appear on behalf of the accused his morality was questioned and one of the senior editors of a news channel branded him as trying to “defend the indefensible” thereby already declaring the accused guilty. 

Conclusion

Media has increasingly become an important part of everyone’s lives. It acts as a watchdog that strives to keep the public informed, aware and vigilant. However, at times the media tries to sensationalize the news in order to grab the attention of the viewers. With the advent of 24 hour news coverage, media houses have delved into sensationalism rather than sensibility. After the augment of Television Rating Points (TRP), media houses try to attract a bigger audience and hence resort to whatever means through which they can achieve high ratings. This can lead to the media overstepping its limit and acting as a judicial institution of its own. It is difficult for the general public to not get swayed by an opinion or narrative that is being pushed relentlessly on them. Such extensive coverage may endanger the interests of the parties involved especially if a matter is sub judice

Under the existing law of Contempt of Courts Act 1971, pre-trial proceedings  are exempt from falling under the ambit of contempt. Publishing material with respect to the parties involved can affect their rights to a fair trial. Due to such lacuna, the press feels empowered to write and circulate excessive or at times, distorted facts. 

The “Press Council of India” (PCI) which is a statutory body is concerned with developing and maintaining the standards of print media. The PCI has very limited powers under the Press Council of India Act 1978. The Act only refers to print media and hasn’t been updated to also include electronic media as well. Under the Act, the PCI can only “warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist.” A mere warning is not enough to curb a media trial and the perils that arise because of it. The PCI should be given a stronger role to ensure that the media aren’t misusing their freedom of speech. 

The trial by media has gained a renewed debate after the “Disha Ravi toolkit case.” The High Court of Delhi admonished certain Media houses to ensure that proper editorial control is exercised while disseminating information to ensure investigation is not hampered. The Media Houses were criticised for its sensationalized reporting. Similarly, after Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the accused Rhea Chakraborty had to file a plea against the unjust media trial meted towards her. Chakraborty filed an affidavit stating that ‘the constant sensationalization of the case’ had caused her ‘extreme trauma’ and an ‘infringement on her privacy.’

Thus, Media trial has become a serious issue in contemporary times. The dangers arising out of such misreporting should be addressed and if needed, the government should take concrete steps to prevent it from happening and impose penalties on media houses that partake in the same. The freedom of press is an inalienable right in a democracy but at the same time, this freedom also exposes its loopholes. Therefore, it is time that the government takes active steps in ensuring a more conscious, sensible and accountable journalism. More importantly, the media should be conscious enough to report neutrally and understand that they cannot over step their freedom of press. 

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