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Trial by Media and the Judicial Dictums

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Trial by Media and the Judicial Dictums

Media is regarded as one of the four pillars of the democracy in India. Media plays a role in shaping the opinions of the society and it quite capable of changing the viewpoint of public on various occasions and events.
In the last two decades, the rise of internet, local radio stations, television and technology has greatly increased the reach and impact of mass media. The circulation of newspapers and the shift to e-papers in English and other local languages has been continuously growing. The ever-expanding readers when mixed with modern technologies has given the media industry an unprecedented boast and a key role to play in shaping people’s opinion. They have the power to make an innocent look guilty and vice-versa and that the “POWER” to control the minds of the public.

The importance of independent media has been well recognised by the Constitution of India. Article 19(1) (a) of part III of the Constitution of India, a fundamental right provides freedom of speech and expression which also includes within its ambit freedom of press. The availability of free, independent and powerful media forms a cornerstone for democracy especially in a country like India which is highly mixed society. Media plays a vital role in being a conscious keeper, a watchdog over the functions of society and an attempt to right all the wrongs in the system by trying to create awareness in hope for a change. In some cases, media revolution has resulted in gains for the people. Even Judiciary has benefited from the fearless, bold, free and ethical journalism and has taken suo-moto cognizance of matters in cases where news highlighted the gross violation of Human Rights.

There are always two sides to every story and right provided under the Constitution has been guaranteed absolutely. In the same manner, Article 19 is to be exercised within reasonable boundaries. For example, the rule of “’sub-judice”, which literally means “under the judge”, which also means the arguments and things said and shown in the court, and while the case is being under judicial consideration it is prohibited from public discussion. The media are in demand that this rule shouldn’t be liberally applies, whereas the judges in the court seem to apply this liberally.

Pros of Media Trial:
• With the rise of newspapers like Economic Times, Times of India, etc, along with internet excess almost everywhere and radio channels, media with such tremendous outreach helps people from every corner of the country to be aware of all the events happening around the world and is also regularly updating people of public matters.
• The richer section of India like politicians, industrialists or celebrities often get rid of court trials by offering bribes to the police who would then refuse to even file a FIR against them. Media being a watchdog and gatekeeper of such misuse of power and money, exposes the dark and true side of such stories.
• Media has helped over the years in creating awareness of the rights that are provided to the people. Even the courts have addressed this that more Indians are aware of their constitutional rights than ever before.
• Since media plays a vital role in shaping the mindset of people, it does so by bringing the criminal to the hook. The fear of being publicly exposed and shamed has made everyone aware of the consequences of their actions and this in turns help to curb the number of crimes committed.

Cons of Media Trial:
• The media projects a person has a “suspect” in such manner that shows him guilty of the crime even before the trial in the court. This kind of publicity and characterizing of the accused by media amounts to undue interference with “Administration of Justice” and it hinders with fundamental right of the accused which is granted to him under Article 21 which provides for “Right to Fair Trial”.
• If the accused to found to be not guilty and has been acquitted by the court, due to the media outrage it would be really difficult to rebuild his lost image.
• If the identity of the witness is released to the public, this creates danger for the witness as he would receive pressure from both the accused’s side and as well as police.
• The criticism doesn’t stop at the accused, it is dragged on to the family and friends of the accused. Apart from all these people, the judges of the court are also not safe whether it is in respect with his judicial conduct or purely private conduct. Sometimes it reaches to a point where the media is ill-informing about things without foundation which may undermine public confidence in judicial institutions.

Famous cases that created headlines, public outrages and media played a vital role. In Santosh Kumar Singh vs. State through CBI (Criminal Appeal No. 87 of 2007), where the deceased Priyadarshini Mattoo who was a law student at University of Delhi and the appellant also a student of LLM on the same campus was convicted by Delhi Court for the charges of Murder and Rape of the deceased and was sentenced to Death penalty. This case gained media outrage when the trial court acquitted defendant by giving him the benefit of the doubt and suggesting CBI did not provide enough evidence. It is when media decided to cover the miscarriage of justice in case, it took seven years to overturn the judgment of the trial court.

In Sidhartha Vashisht @Manu Sharma vs. State (NCT, Delhi) (Criminal Appeal No. 157 of 2007), in 1999, the accused shot and killed the deceased model Jessica Lal when she refused to serve him liquor. When trial court acquitted him in 2006, this resulted in nationwide outcry for justice with candles marches, protest marches and newspaper headlines “No One Killed Jessica”. In spite of being clear evidence of crime, the accused was out on bail a lot of time it when high Court decided to put an end on this a sentenced him to life imprisonment and Supreme Court too dismissed his special leave petition. High court called this judgement as “an immature assessment of material on record”.

In Vishal Yadav vs State of UP (CrL. A. 741 of 2008), two cousins who are connected to UP politician abducted and with the help of hired help killed the deceased Nitish Katara, an MBA and son of IAS officer. This was termed as a planned murder because it was seen as a revenge taken by the cousins who saw Nitish getting friendly with one of brother’s sister at a wedding. Media intervention led to an expose on dirty UP politicians. The High Court sentenced them to jail time. Supreme Court on appeal recorded that this case was neither honour killing nor rarest of the rare and sentenced both cousins to 25 years and hired help to 20 years in jail.

Media surely is a cornerstone of our democracy which works for greater good of the society but legal process should not be hindered by media coverage. The accused in a case should be convicted on basis of the facts and not depending upon the media coverage. The law of the land should prevail and the freedom of press should be provided with reasonable restrictions.
Authored By: Adv. Anant Sharma & Manasvi Shah

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