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The Abysmal Quality Of Legal Reporting In India Is A Collective Failure And A Crucial Opportunity Lost

The recent case of popular businessman Naveet Kalra is only one among a string of cases in recent years where the quality of legal reporting has sent the legal fraternity into dismay. The entrepreneur, owner of famous outlets like Khan Chacha and Dayal Opticals, has been accused of hoarding, black marketing and selling Oxygen concentrators at exorbitant prices.

Everything from the authenticity of the Concentrators to his license to deal in them is still under question before the court of a Magistrate in Delhi. However, these finer details are missing on the all-knowing social media outlets who have already held him guilty and moved on to establishing his ‘connections’ with a certain political party(ies).

The media has forgotten the importance of the word alleged in the criminal justice system of India and have become the judge, jury and executioner.  Without going into the merits of the case here (which no one can before the verdict is out), it is clear as a day how the media have presumed his guilt and are out to hang his political enablers. Such clarity of thought and promptness of action would have been commendable if put to the right use.

Even grimmer is the fact that this is hardly a one-off incident of irresponsible reporting of legal cases. This tendency reached new lows in the case of tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput where reporting of certain channels was declared prima facie contemptuous by the Bombay High Court and specific directives had to be issued regarding all future reporting in the case.

In the case of RK Anand vs Registrar, Delhi High Court (2009) 8 SCC 106, the Hon'ble Supreme defined media trial as any form of coverage, publication in print or electronic mode which creates a bias in the minds of viewers/readers regardless of any verdict of the court of law. This makes a fair trial impossible and harms the life of the accused undergoing the trial.

Ever since our independence, there have been scores of cases where proceedings have been frustrated by media trials be it the case of KM Nanavati, Jessica Lal, Arushi Talwar, Priyadarshini Mattoo, Sheena Bora or countless others. In Sahara India Real Estate Corp. Ltd. v. SEBI (2012) 10 SCC 603 the Hon'ble Supreme Court emphasizing these high-profile cases in the past observed that fair trial and investigation have suffered due to sensational media reporting in such cases.

An Opportunity Lost
Legal reporting is a potentially powerful device to not only inform the public of facts but also educate them about provisions of the law they may not understand. A general explainer about the legal issue at hand and the stage of the trial can go a long way to calm the collective hysteria of the masses. As budding lawyers, we take great pains to convince those demanding summary justice that the painstaking procedure serves as a crucial constitutional right guaranteed to every accused against the state which must be zealously preserved. Irresponsible reporting of legal proceedings in the form of media trials stultify these efforts and impoverishes public legal discourse.

The foundational principle of our criminal justice system is that anyone accused of a crime is "innocent until proven guilty" and such guilt must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. The Hon'ble Supreme Court has categorically observed that media trials are the antithesis of rule of law and influences the subconscious of the judges. Court has called for an atmosphere of judicial calm and lack of bias against any accused.

The duty of a journalist is to merely report a case but not to adjudicate and the right to freedom of the press must be balanced against the right to privacy of the persons involved. In Tehseen S. Poonawalla v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that no form of vigilante justice by the community on the streets is permissible.

Although the higher judiciary is vested with powers of Contempt under the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 and Articles 129 and 215 of the constitution. which may be utilized against defaulting reporters, such powers are highly discretionary and sparingly used and can hardly compensate for the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

The Legal Framework
The Cable Television Networks (Regulations) Act (CTVN act), 1995 was enacted to ensure that the cable television networks know of their rights, responsibilities and obligations towards the interest of the viewers and the interests of the unity and integrity of the country and to ensure that these cable television networks follow the rule of the land, for example, the Cinematograph Act, 1952, Copyright Act, 1957.

Section 22 of the Act, empowers the Central Government to enact rules to carry out provisions of the CTVN Act which were promulgated in 1995. Section 5 of the act obligates the Cable TV networks to follow the ‘Programme code’ to be able to transmit or re-transmit any programme which is stipulated under Rule 6 of the CTVN rules. The mandatory nature of the programme code was affirmed by the legislature using negative words in Rule 6 which is supported by Nasiruddin & Ors. v. Sita Ram Agarwal AIR 2003 SC 1543.

These rules define media trial as that which:
(d) Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half-truths.
(f) Contains anything amounting to contempt of court.
  1. criticizes, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of the social, public and moral life of the country.

To avoid state scrutiny, the private autonomous body News Broadcasters Association (NBA) came up with an ethical code of conduct for media houses. The members of the NBA are bound by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) which is headed by an ex Supreme Court judge. The NBSA considers a complaint against the members of the NBA if any violation of ethics and broadcasting standards is reported. As per NBA, there are sufficient penalties to keep a check on the News channels and to keep them within the four corners of the Code of Ethics and Regulations and practicing standards.

The News Broadcasting Association specific guidelines for Reporting Court Proceedings dictate that news reports about matters sub-judice in a court of law shall be neutral and balanced with reference only to verified and authentic facts. Such reports should be free from any bias, speculation or conclusive as to the outcome of the case. The guidelines also prohibit any report making comments on personal character, culpability or guilt of the accused or the victim/their family members or anything like contempt of court. Although News channels are free to make fair comments on judicial acts, they are not to make any allegations of personal bias, motives etc on the judges.

The division bench of Bombay High Court of Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni in contempt of court proceedings against two prominent media houses opined that although there exists a robust regulatory framework to prevent media trials in the form of the "CTVN Act and CTVN rules, their implementation is far from satisfactory. The Court also opined that the authority under the CTVN Act cannot abdicate its power to NBSA authority which does not have legal sanctity and is merely a self-regulatory body.  It is important to note that no such regulation exists for the thousands of media portals that have mushroomed all across cyberspace claiming to present 'unbiased news' to their subscribers.

The authors are well aware of the alarm bells that may ring for "freedom of the press" at any demand for "regulation but it must be kept in mind that the cornerstone of regulation is accountability and transparency and doesn’t have to always mean chastising by the Executive. To that effect, the authors in principle agree with the decision of the Central government to the limited extent of identifying media portals online. Although the details of these regulations are worth debating over, the verification of a portal’s ability, qualification and competence to report is only fair disclosure for the consumer to distinguish NEWS from opinions. This need for minimum qualification is even more acute when reporting legal proceedings which are prone to be misinterpreted unless verified by a person familiar with the law.

While criticizing the Media, it is not our intention to let the courts off the hook. As pointed out by former Chief Justice of India, RC Lahoti in the Indian Express, there have been growing instances of various high courts making intemperate statements that make sensational headlines feeding fuel to the fire of irresponsible reporting. Calls for "beg, borrow or steal, but bring oxygen" or the "EC should be put up for Murder charges" by the higher judiciary are premature statements with clear potential to be misinterpreted and highlighted for political gains. The courts cannot be excused for the lack of intention. The matter is certainly one of 'fine balance' to be maintained by the media and the judiciary.


Award Winning Article Is Written By:
  1. Mr.Shivam Kataria &
  2. Mr.Rohan Wadhwa
Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: MA114200298873-22-0521

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