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Ehics in Media: A Thing of the Past?

Media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy and as such, it plays a great role in the overall development of the country. It is considered as the backbone of a country as it provides overall information regarding different aspects like political, economic, and social. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with what is right and what is wrong based on moral values. If we talk of media, ethics have forms the basis of journalism as people form perceptions based on the things which they see over media.

With technological developments, ethical practices in Indian media are facing continues challenges. It has become common things of denoting media companies as one belonging to the left-wing or the right-wing. Media trials have also evolved as one of the greatest challenges faced in this country directly affecting the judicial system of the country.

It is very much dangerous as it leads to people coming to an opinion without any judgment given by the court and possesses a threat of prejudicial effect in any matter. In this article, I am going to discuss the freedom of the press, the ethical principles required in journalism, what unethical things the media follows, and the way ahead.

Freedom of Press in India

Freedom of Press is an article of faith with us, sanctioned by our Constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a Nation.[1]

The right to freedom of the press is incorporated in the right to freedom of speech and expression provides under Article 19(a) of the Indian Constitution and hence it is a fundamental right. India had signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on January 01, 1942.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.[2]

In the case of Keshvanand Bharti v. State of Kerela[3], the apex court observed that though the UDHR may not be a legally binding instrument but it shows how India understood the nature of human rights at the time the Constitution was adopted.

In the case of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras[4], popularly known as cross roads case, Patanjali Shastri, CJ observed:
Freedom of speech and the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.

In the case of Indian Express v. Union of India[5], the court observed that media plays a great role in the democracy and opined that courts must uphold their freedom by invaliding the laws and administrative actions that affect their freedom. The following elements were considered as essential elements of freedom of press: freedom of accessing all information[6] of information, freedom of publication, and freedom of circulation.

However, the freedom of the press is also subject to reasonable restrictions provided under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. In the case of Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India court observed:
The exercise of journalistic freedom lies at the core of speech and expression protected by Article 19(1)(a).[7]

It further observed:
India’s freedoms will rest safely as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal. The exercise of that fundamental right is not absolute and is answerable to the legal regime enacted with reference to the provisions of Article 19(2).[8]The court also noted: Our decisions hold that the right of a journalist under Article 19(1)(a) is no higher than the right of the citizen to speak and express.[9]

Restrictions can be imposed on the following grounds: Sovereignty and Integrity of India, Security of the nation, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation and Incitement to an Offence.[10]

Ethical Values in Media

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power; but just as unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.

The fundamental objective of media is to provide the people with news, opinions and information of things going on in an unbiased, accurate and fair manner.[11] The Media has duties and obligations towards the society and hence it has to follow certain basic rules of ethics to promote their trust in the people and to maintain their credibility. The basic ethical values required in journalism are:

Honesty and fairness:

It is the basic duty of journalists to check that the reports collected are true and fair. The reports should in no way be misleading.
Respecting privacy: Media personnel has a duty to respect the privacy of any person. Recently the apex court also opined that privacy is the core of constitutional dignity and the Right to Privacy was declared as a Fundamental Right[12].

Distinguish between fact and opinion: It is the basic duty as for the masses to know whether it is a fact or an opinion and to take it accordingly.

Duty not to inflate hatred among any class of the society: It is the duty of the media personnel not to create an image of anyone based on assumptions so that it leads to a feeling of hatred.

Recently, the people of Tablighi Jamat were showed in such a way by some media channels as it showed that they were only responsible for the spread of coronavirus in the country. In this matter, the Bombay High Court observed:
There was big propaganda in print media and electronic media against the foreigners who had come to Markaz Delhi and an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading Covid-19 virus in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners. A political Government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is a probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats.[13]

Duty not to conduct media trial: It is the duty of journalists not to prejudge the guilt of any person against whom legal proceedings have already been instituted.

Independence: It is the most important thing required in journalism. The media persons should act as independent voices and not like that it is the voice of a particular person/ persons. Independence of media has been one of the most debatable topics in the present era.

Unethical acts in Journalism

With the evolving time, the ways through which media shares its views, opinions, facts and information is also increasing. Now information is shared in many ways – through websites, WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels, television channels, newspapers, magazines, mobile & computer applications etc. India has evolved to be one of the biggest media markets in the world.

As per data of March 31, 2018, over 1,18,239 publications were registered with the registrar of Newspapers which consisted of over 550 FM radio stations, over 880 satellite TV channels of which over 380 claims for broadcasting news and current affairs [14]. A large number of operative media houses are backed by the support of political parties, rich and influential persons and this leads to taking up unethical practices by them. Some of them are as follows:

Paid News:
It is one of the biggest threats to journalism. It is the basic ethical media, to be honest and fair as ultimately large number of people will see to it and form their opinions based on that. It was observed by Sikri, J. It is becoming very alarming but we are in the era of paid and fake news because of the digital era. Stories are created...and somebody puts it on any digital mode and these, in a few hours’ time, become viral. The reach is a billion people,.

Media Trail
Media trial can be defined as a trial parallel to the court of law in which the media house declares a person innocent or guilty before the final judgment of the court based on debates and discussions. It also leads to the forming of opinions in the minds of people. The media trials have been evident in cases like Jessica Lal murder cases, Bijal Joshi rape case, Nitish Katara murder case etc.

A Few years back, Sarvjeet Singh was put up on media trial and was even declared pervert, potential rapist and he was declared guilty and was subjected to mental traumas. However, four years later Delhi Court acquitted him of all the charges saying testimony of the complainant is not trustworthy and casts doubt on the case of the prosecution[15].

Recently, after the alleged Sushant Singh Rajput suicide, some media channels started conducting their own trial in which they questioned the witnesses just like the examination of witnesses in court. Central Bureau of Investigation registered FIR on August 06, 2020[16], and is investigating presently investigating in this case.

Many chats between the deceased and the main accused were made viral which is a clear breach of privacy. Many media channels even concluded that who is guilty. Taking a stern view of these activities, the Press Council of India has issued an advisory[17] asserting media channels not to conduct their own parallel trail in the said incident.

The Council also noted that many media channels are covering the case by violating journalistic norms. It further stated,It is not advisable to vigorously report crime-related issues on a day-to-day basis and comment on the evidence without ascertaining the factual matrix and told that it hinders the process of a fair trial.

The media trials lead to things like mental trauma to the accused, the bias in public opinion, a breach in personal privacy and impact in conducting a fair trial. Law Commission of India has submitted a report titled Trial by Media: Free Speech vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971)[18] where it has mentioned various instances and pointed out how the administration of justice is affected by media trials and the judges may also be influenced subconsciously.

Media affects the administration of criminal justice system and keeps the principles like ‘presumed to be innocent until proven guilty’ etc. at stake. Media trials can never be an alternative to the process of trial done by the courts. Three different pillars of democracy: legislature, executive and judiciary have been made for different purposes. It the media personnel start doing the work of the judiciary, then there would be no need for a separate judiciary.

Media plays a great role in governance and the overall development of the country. The same has been highlighted at various occurrences. Many of the media houses are doing great work by imparting true and accurate information among the masses. A few months ago, Patna High Court took suo moto cognizance[19], seeking a response from the government based on a report published at Times of India[20] where a child was trying to wake up his dead mother.

In July, Patna High Court took suo moto cognizance[21] based on a report published in Indian Express[22], where the plight of children was highlighted due to the non-availability of mid-day meals due to closure of schools and ‘anganvadis’.

However, on the other side, it has been constantly highlighted that many media channels do not focus on verifying information rather they focus on providing it at the earliest. Due to many factors like sponsoring media by big corporate houses and politicians, ethical standards are compromised.

It has also been observed that despite focusing on issues of concern like education, health, economy etc., they focus on trivial issues. Mechanisms like ‘letter to editor’, media watch groups ensure accountability of media and also helps in increasing the credibility of the press. Also, independent regulators free from government and media control can be assigned to have a monitor and have a check on media houses.

  1. Late Rajiv Gandhi, Former Prime Minister
  2. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, 1948, Art. 19.
  3. AIR 1973 SC 1461.
  4. AIR 1950 SC 124.
  5. AIR 1986 SC 515.
  6. M.S.M. Sharma v. Sri Krishna Sinha, AIR 1959 SC 395.
  7. ArnabRanjanGoswami v. Union of India, 2020 SCC Online SC 450, ¶ 32.
  8. Id., 7
  9. Id., 7
  10. The Constitution of India, 1950, Art.19(2).
  11. Media Ethics: Address by Chairman, Press Council of India on 18th January 2007 at IIMC, Dhenkanal, Orissa.
  12. K. S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1
  13. Konan KodioGanstone&Ors.v. State of Maharastra, Cri. W. P. No. 548/ 2020 &Ors.¶ 27
  14. Media Landscape not pluralistic, finds study, The Hindu, May 30, 2019, available at:
  15. AnanyaBhardwaj, Man labelled pervert and Delhi kadarinda acquitted in molestation case after 4 years, ThePrint, October 25,2019, available at:
  16. FIR No. RC2242020S0001, available at:
  17. Amrita NayakDutta, Watchdog PCI slams ‘media trial’ in Sushant Singh Rajput case, says don’t publish goship, The Print, August 28, 2020, available at:
  18. Law Commission of India, Trial by Media: Free Speech vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971), Report No.200, (August 2006).
  19. 2020 SCC Online Pat 628.
  20. Lockdown: Toddler's failed attempt to wake up dead mother leaves internet, conscience shaken, Times of India, May 27, 2020 available at:
  21. Court on its own motion on the basis of news item titled School shut no mid day meal children, Civil Writ Jurisdiction Case No. 7124/ 2020.
  22. DipanakarGhose, School shut, no mid-day meal, children in Bihar village back to work selling scrap, Indian Express, July 6, 2020 available at:

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Prasoon Shekhar - A law student at The ICFAI University, Dehradun.
Email: [email protected]

Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: SP026093700112-16-920

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