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Trail by media and its impact on public conscience and judicial trial along with case laws

Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy besides the executive, legislature and judiciary. In a strong democracy, the people have a say in the governance of the state. The press plays a pivotal role in conveying the people's aspirations and desires to the Government. Thus, the press provides a platform to the common people to have their say.

The role of the media is to keep people aware. However, nowadays the role has changed especially with respect to reporting of criminal cases. The media sometimes go beyond its domain and starts interfering with the powers of the court. It now conducts a parallel trial with the court. It fails to recognise the gap between an accused who is presumed innocent until proven guilty and a convict whose guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.[1]

The Constitution of India provides for freedom of speech and expression as given under Article 19 (1)(f), however, it is subjected to reasonable restrictions which can be imposed by the legislature to secure fair administration of justice as provided under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

The media has come under sharp criticism for overstepping its boundaries and conducting parallel trials along with the court. As a result of this, the accused is denied his right to a fair trial and also it leads to miscarriage of justice. The problem with media trial is that it only campaigns for the cases which add up to their market value and their TRP's.

Relevant Case Laws
In State of Maharashtra v. R.J Gandhi[2] the Supreme Court said:
A trial by press, electronic media or public agitation is very antithesis of rule of law. It can well lead to a miscarriage of justice. A judge has to guard himself against such pressure and he is to be guided strictly by rule of law.[3]

The biased opinion of media can be seen in two different cases namely, Sanjay Dutt v State of Maharashtra[4] and State of Manipur v Vikas Yadav[5] (Jessica Lal murder case) where the accused Manu Sharma had already been held guilty by the media and the Delhi High Court. In the case of Sanjay Dutt the media had a sympathetic view whereas in Manu Sharma's case the accused was held guilty by the media and immense pressure was made on the Court to pronounce its judgment.

In Manu Sharma's case senior advocate Ram Jethmalani who represented the accused in the Supreme Court had stressed on the point that the decision of the Delhi High Court had been influenced by the ongoing pressure from the media. The apex the court accepted the view that there has been an element of media trial in the case but the same has not affected the judgment of the Court. Thus, in 2010 the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court.

On the contrary, it can also be said that because of a case getting media's attention to the importance of that case in the public domain increases. It affects the common public conscience. The final verdict in any of the cases would depend upon the facts and circumstances of the case so media trial does not really affects the conduct of the trial in the court, but if it is honest and focuses on the details of the case, the presentation of facts is affected and if the focus of the media was not present on the case, then there would have been a misrepresentation of facts and hence, the administration of justice in such a case would have been hampered.

In State of Delhi v Ram Singh and others[6] the prosecution had argued that the persons accused in this case be granted maximum punishment which is death penalty looking at the nature of the offence and the way in which it was committed. The defence given was that two of the accused were drunk at the time of the incident and moreover, judgments were cited where it was held by the apex court that death penalty should be granted only in rarest of rare cases and for that the court should first consider the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating circumstances.

This case brought incidents of sexual abuse in India to the international spotlight. This case had changed the way the coverage of rape cases was done by the media before and the immense coverage played a crucial role in the administration of justice in this case. The four accused were hanged on 20 March 2020.

The state of Maharashtra vs Yakub Memon and ors[7] the Judges of the Supreme Court were divided on the opinion of life and death. The Chief Justice of India had to refer the case to a larger bench in order to decide whether the case of Yakub Memon requires a re-look.

The case was transferred from the division bench of Justice Dave and Justice Kurian Joseph.
Justice Joseph quoted:
Nothing can stand in the way of life of a person. Life is a constitutional right. Law is not helpless and this court is not powerless to protect the right to life. Law is for the man and if it is about the life of a man, no technicality can prevent this court from passing appropriate orders.

On the other hand, Justice Dave opposed the way Yakub Memon was treated.

On the one hand, the people of India expect the police to be the first and most robust line of defence against routine crime, as well as more serious challenges like Naxalism and cross-border terrorism. But on the other, influential segments of our civil society, including the media, elected representatives and elements of our criminal justice system, send confusing signals about the basic parameters within which the policy is expected to uphold the rule of law.[8]

Media is given the designation of the fourth pillar of democracy. It should function in keeping this thing in mind. It helps in creating awareness in the general public of what is happening in society. Part III of the Constitution of India does not specifically talk about freedom of the press but in various decisions of the apex court, it has been held that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of the press under Article 19(1)(a).

It is the power of media due to which the case of Nirbhaya gained so much attention and people were agitated by the nature of the act not only in India but also at the international level. The law with respect to rape was amended and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 was enacted. On the other hand, in Yakub Memon's case another definition of human right was propounded wherein, the Supreme Court worked at midnight in order to hear the plea of the accused against the death penalty.

Now the question that needs to be answered is why there is a sense of biasedness while reporting some particular cases. In Memon's case, some elite persons of the country did protest demanding justice for Yakub Memon. The lives of 257 people were lost during the blast and the accused is been saved on the basis of human right. The biasedness with which reporting is done should be regulated and penalties should be levied for such biasedness as this directly affects the public conscience.

The emergence of the electronic media in the last decade has threatened the credibility of news which are been shown nowadays. The terms ‘fake news' and ‘paid news' has gained popularity with the emergence of social media including Facebook, Whatsapp etc. it is unfortunate that electronic media does not come under the ambit of the Press Council Act.

  2. AIR 1997 SC 398
  3. Ibid
  4. SCC (6) 189, JT 1995 (7) 378
  5. AIR 2000
  6. SCC 114/2013
  7. AIR 2015

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