Trial by Media

Lord Macaulay, member of the British Parliament, years ago, called the media as the fourth pillar of democracy, as it plays a very important role in shaping and influencing opinions of the people. The media serves the purpose of ‘watchdog’ over the arbitrary actions of the government. The freedom of Press comes under the ambit of Article 19 (1) (a) i.e. freedom of speech and expression. It is essential to have an independent media for a democratic society such as India. The increasing role of media was appropriately put by Justice Learned Hand of the United Supreme Court when he said that “the hand that rules the Press, the radio, the screen, and the far-spread magazines, rules the country.”

Though there are cases where the media has helped the investigation, there are cases where the media had taken the cases into their own hands and declared an accused as a convict, even before the court had given its decision. This violates the right of the person as according to our law a suspect is entitled to a “fair procedure” and is “presumed innocent till proven guilty” of a crime and these are the 2 most essential principles of most legal systems across the world.

There have been cases where the media has led the investigating agencies on the right track. Some classic positive examples of media trail would be the Jessica Lal case, and  The Priyadarshini Mattoo case.

This practice of declaring the accused as a convict even before the court had given its judgment, is called media trails. It is the widespread coverage of the guilt of the accused and imposing a certain perception about him, regardless of any of the verdict given by the court of law. Where there has been high publicity of court cases, the media has often played an important role in creating distress among the viewers, making it nearly impossible for the trial to result as a fair one. There have been reasons why the attention of the media around certain cases is sensationally high.

In today’s world it is mainly to increase the circulation and TRP of newspapers and news channels. Due to this the media has forgotten the fundamental difference between an accused and a criminal. It has the power to influence the masses by portraying an innocent as a culprit thereby changing perceptions. Due to this reason, various Judges of Court have criticized the trial by media as it leads to psychological variation while giving any degree. Though media trial has exposed many high-profile cases such like Jessica Lal Murder, Article 19(2) provides reasonable restrictions.

A classic example of negative side of trail by media could be the Aarushi Murder case the media manipulations changed every single day and proclaimed Aarushi’s parents as her murderer’s. However, CBI didn’t find any clue and the court’s final sentence came after many years. Media has been termed as a magic bullet that directly hits the minds of the people as before the final judgment of the court where everyone had accused Aarushi’s parents for her murder. Even in the 2002 Godhra riots, Narendra Modi was accused by the media for killing Muslims in Gujarat. However, in year 2014, the High Court of Gujarat gave Narendra Modi a clean chit in Godhra riots but, still most of the people believed that he was behind Godhra Riots. Media Trial causes the reputation, respect and dignity to suffer even after one have been proven innocent. In many instances, the media has overlooked the ‘contempt of court’ that clearly punishes the one who interferes and arbitrates in the matters of court.

Media Trial can sometimes become a problem for fair trial when there are two conflicting ideologies. A media trial can be partial to a side of the party thereby influencing the view of the people. This, in turn, pressurises the court. At times media trials create so much of pressure on the lawyers, not to take the case of a party, which forces the accused party to go through the trials without having any defence which is his right.

Granted that the media should be bold and powerful and is often useful in exposing scams and bring changes but there is adverse effect of media trial on the reputation of a person in the society even if he is not guilty. Media should maintain its code of laws and ethics, social responsibility and credibility by not interfering in the matters of court so early which would affect the fair trial. A recent example can be that of the Sushant Singh Rajput Death Case and Rhea’s involvement in the case. Though the role of media is applaudable but now it has been  over 3 months but the media houses still showing the same case day in and day out and in the wake of showing Sushant Singh Rajput’s case, the media houses have pushed back the other important issues which were of national importance such as the Farmers Strike against Farmer Bill 2020, Raise in Corona cases in India etc.

I believe that the media houses instead of conducting media trial should do the research and keep a check on high profile cases to find the evidences and keep it with them until and unless they find the truth hasn’t prevailed.

Yes, I agree that that the role of media in important in the 21st century where violence, crime & corruption are at its peak and where human life is not priceless anymore but many a times media trail just influences people and promote their own agenda. At the end of the day media trail are undesirable and should be avoided at all cost. Media organizations, under the guise of “hardcore journalism”, sensationalize carefully and strategically picked cases in order to increase their TRP. The media’s portrayal goes a long way in influencing public opinion, and even judges’ decision gets subconsciously manipulated. An important factor here is the pattern of media ownership which decides what the media focuses on and what it ignores. Even the Supreme Court, which has always been a supporter of freedom of press and the media, was concerned about the issue of media trials, and eventually set guidelines on how the media can report on-going trials and cases. The importance of a free press and a strong media in a true democracy is undeniable. It is very important for a democracy to have an effective media in place. The media has a lot of power in its hands, and if this power is misused, it can cause a great damage to the nation. There is no external body can be set up to keep a check the media as that would be considered as a threat to the freedom of press. So, the entire responsibility falls on the media professionals themselves to check themselves and ensure that they are not influencing people. At the same time, the people should also be more aware and understand fact from fiction.