On 22nd April 2015, soon after a farmer from Dausa district of Rajasthan committed suicide by hanging from a tree in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar during Aam Admi Party’s anti-land acquisition rally, the news created an uproar in the media. Politicians in their crisp linen attires began beating their breasts and blaming their opponents, while a few people threw hash tags at each other leading to an outrage in TV studios.
Seeking an opportunity to attack AA P leader, Arvind Kejriwal through media, BJP’s Sambit Patra smartly blamed the CM for not stopping the farmer from ending his life. He alleged that instead of putting a stop to the act, Kejriwal continued with his speech, which was unexpected. Congress party too was not left behind. The party accused AAP for shifting blames on others along with the media. Media too politicized the matter in such a way that the relatives of the victims too were compelled to hold Kejriwal and his government responsible for the suicide.
Here, the anchors of TV studios too played a key role as judges and proved it right whatever they considered to be true. Without giving much opportunity to the guests in the studio to speak, the anchor cuts them in between and tries hard to establish his own verdict without even hearing both the sides. “A section of the media has tried everything to tarnish the Aam Aadmi Party's image," "Why did not television channels highlight issues related to Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari ,but leave no stone unturned to showcase AAP issues? We need transparency in the media", stated Kejriwal. He also added that some media houses were conspiring against his party.
Another incident on 1st March 2015, where Oscar winner British filmmaker Lesslee Udwin revealed that she and her companions had interviewed one of the convict, Mukesh Singh, involved in the ‘16 December South Delhi gang rape’ case, now held in the Tihar Jail, for her documentary film ‘India’s Daughter.’ The news soon spread like a wild fire among the media fraternity of India creating public protests and banning the film in the country by the government.
This incident was widely covered by the Indian as well as the international media and was condemned across the world. Media played a vital role during the incident leading to the arrest of the accused by the Delhi Police. Indian Government too was not spared. Public and Media across the nation hugely raged an outcry and criticized the government for not providing enough protection to women.
Also another incident of death of a teenage girl who was molested and thrown out of a bus in Punjab along with her mother was discussed and debated for days together, demanding the arrest of the owners of the transport company, who happen to be from the ruling Akali Dal, while a suicide by a small cable operator, Jassi from Punjab, who killed himself in front of many prominent judges and media honchos in Amritsar during a TDSAT Seminar in March 2015, has not even received a mention or discussed and debated by our over ambitious broadcasters who go out of the way to hype or downplay an event depending on what benefits they accrue from it. If it increases TRPs or they get good money for it, it is hyped to no extent meaninglessly, even if it is against the ethical norms. Here, the mention may be made of the defamation case between the two corporate honchos… Naveen Jindal the industrialist and former Congress MP and the Zee Media Corporation, which is a part of Subhash Chandra’s media empire. A sensational ‘reverse-sting’ conducted by Jindal in October 2012, led to the conflict, wherein representatives of Zee Media were allegedly caught on tape demanding Rs. 100 crore as advertising fees from the Jindal Group in exchange for “going slow” on coverage of the Group’s alleged involvement in the coal-block allocation scam. The initial arrests and the lawsuit filed, got ample coverage in the mainstream media and the unprecedented facts of the case kicked off a debate on media ethics.
Being the 4th pillar of democracy, today media has become an inseparable part of the democratic government system. However, the intervention of media in some cases (especially, the high profile cases) that involves public interest is condemned throughout the country for years. Today it is seen that much before the judicial verdict is pronounced by the court in a case, media makes an effort to prove the accused as guilty or innocent by conducting a parallel trial, solely to gain TRP.
Former Chief Justice of India, Altamas Kabir described the subject of ‘trial by media’ as a matter of grave concern and stated that it should not happen. I&B Minister, Shri Arun Jaitley too slammed the media saying that, “Media will have to seriously introspect as to what extent it should go to” when dealing with “areas which have no bearing on larger public interest” but “can only add some spice to the content of the report”. “I am constrained to observe that certain trial courts are under tremendous pressure, particularly in high-profile cases where the media has conducted a parallel trial and almost declared somebody guilty or innocent’’ added Mr. Jaitley.
Media Influencing Court Trials
Over the years, the media houses in our country have grown in broad length. It has the power to build or destroy the image of an individual .Political parties too agree the fact that media can even change the government of a country. It is to be noted that, influence of media is such , that in highly publicized court cases it not only makes a fair trial nearly impossible, but also forces the accused to spend rest of his/ her life under extreme public scrutiny irrespective of the hearing in the court of law. It can also play a huge role in influencing the judges. Hence in 2012 , the Supreme Court of India indicated that it would soon direct some guidelines for the media on court reporting so as to strike a balance between protecting press freedom and protecting the right to life. Criticizing the trials by media, Supreme Court judge J. S Khehar quoted: “The media creates a mindset about what is right or wrong. When the judgment is not on those lines, the judge's image is tarnished and all sorts of motives are attributed to him and his judgment becomes suspect.”
Drawback of Media Trials
It is often seen in most of the TV news channels that while debating on a highly publicized court case, the newsroom takes the shape of a courtroom, and the news anchors turn judges and pronounce the verdict in favour or against the accused. But such verdicts become one-sided and may distort the image of an individual. Hence, I & B Minister asserted, the “privacy of individuals” even in “high-profile cases” needed to be respected, as the damage done by the media is irreparable simply because of the outreach of the media. For instance, the much talked-about Aarushi –Hemraj murder case of 2008. To an utter dismay, media organizations presented the case in such a way that readers and viewers across the country were made to believe that the Talwars were guilty of killing their daughter and servant, Hemraj even before the court of law made then couple convict. Another example that can be mentioned here is Salman Khan’s 13 year old hit and run case. Although the final verdict of the case came out in the month of May this year, media has been alleging the actor as the main accused since the incident took place. In order to ensure that people listen to his side of the story too, the actor had to open a website of his own. Former Supreme Court judge Justice GN Ray, noted that “an accused is entitled to the privilege of presumption of being innocent till guilt is pronounced by the Court.”
However, the impact of such trials is not always negative. At times, media has also been credited for ensuring that voices are raised whenever justice has been denied. Media played a very prominent role in high profile murder cases like the Jessica Lal murder case and the Priyadarshni Mattoo murder case, where the accused were powerful enough to influence the judiciary and the witnesses.
Commenting on the role played by media, Justice Markandey Katju, former Chairman of Press Council of India, and former Judge at the Supreme Court of India, said, “I have a poor opinion of the media”. “They should be working for the interest of the people. They are not working for the interest of the people and sometime they are positively working in an anti-people manner”. Hence it must be regulated in the public interest. He added that no freedom is absolute and all freedoms are subject to certain restrictions. In a democracy like India, everyone is accountable to the people, and so is the media.
To conclude, the media needs to draw a line beyond which it should not intervene in any judicial case. Everyone deserves an equal right before the law to prove his/her innocence. None should be declared guilty unless proven by the court of law and media has no right to project someone guilty before the court does. In this context, Former Supreme Court judge Justice GN Ray rightly said, “In a conflict between fair trial and freedom of speech, fair trial has to necessarily prevail because any compromise of fair trial for an accused will cause immense harm and defeat justice delivery system.” However, a legal fix to the problem is not so easy, as court and crime reporting forms the core of journalism in every democracy.