Since the early 1980s, the term “media trial” or “trials by media” has been used to describe the impact of media coverage on an ongoing legal trial, and thereby forming the public’s sense of right and wrong.
However, there have been cases where numerous crimes would have gone unpunished if the media had not intervened, such as Jessica Lal’s murder case or Nitish Katara’s murder case. But, just because media trials have won a few victories, does that indicate it is a healthy manner of providing information to the people of the world’s largest democratic country? Should the media be allowed to hold trials on their channels just because a few cases were solved? Is this a lawful act?
PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE
The presumption of innocence is the principle that asserts that a person who is “accused” of a crime is always considered “innocent until proven guilty”.
To quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, “everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence”.
What do the terms, accused and convicted mean?
The term “accused” refers to someone who has been charged with committing a crime, whereas “convicted” refers to someone who has been found “guilty” of the crime by a court of law.
In today’s society, the legal idea of “Presumption of Innocence” is important; nevertheless, the media is lagging far behind. The cases that we will analyse, will show how the media turns the accused into convicted and manipulates public opinion.
ROLE OF MEDIA
Media is the main means of mass communication that is responsible to deliver information or data to the target audience. It not only educates people about the plethora of issues but also unites them against social evils. Media is one of the most powerful entities in the world. From imparting knowledge to shaping public opinion, it has become as necessary as food and clothing. The term incorporates components of mass media communications industry, such as print media (newspapers, magazines), broadcasting (television, radio), cinema, photography, digital media and advertising. All these components make it easy for the public to gain an understanding of current events, interpret them and learn to intelligently participate in the social, political and economic affairs of the country.
However, media is a double-edged weapon. Media is the fourth pillar of democracy that is responsible for connecting people with the government in the most direct way possible. They also serve the essential job of giving information about the government’s other three organs, thereby assisting citizens in exercising their right to information. While the media serves as a vital platform for citizens to communicate with the government, it also plays with delicate matters and violates the golden rule of presumption of innocence, therefore warping people’s thoughts.
When a sensitive case is brought before the court, there is an expected rise in interest among the public. Always on the lookout for exciting news, the media, including newspapers, television stations, and news websites, begin posting their versions of events. It’s known as investigative journalism and is legal in India.
“Media Trial” or “Trial by Media” refers to the impact of media coverage on an individual via newspapers and television in developing an impression of innocence or guilt even before a court of law delivers its decision.
- K.M. Nanavati v State of Maharashtra. This is a very important case that was covered and influenced by media resulting in important decisions. The facts of the case are as follows:
- K.M. Nanavati was an Indian Naval Officer and was second in command of the Indian naval ship “Mysore”. He was married to Sylvia and had three children with her. He shifted to Bombay in March 1959 with his family and met Prem Ahuja, a businessman in Bombay.
- While Nanavati was away due to his duty, a friendship developed between his wife and Prem which later took the form of an illicit relationship. On April 27, 1959, he was confronted with the confession of his wife when she opened about her relationship with Ahuja.
- In the heat of his agony, he went to his ship to get a revolver and six rounds on a false pretext and drove to Ahuja’s workplace. On not finding him there, he drove to Ahuja’s residence. Upon arrival, he confirmed his presence from a servant and went to Ahuja’s bedroom while carrying the revolver. Nanavati closed the bedroom door behind him and asked Ahuja about marrying his wife and taking care of his children. Not getting a satisfactory answer, Nanavati became enraged and threatened him. A struggle ensued between the two and during that struggle two shots went off accidentally and hit Ahuja shot dead. From there, Nanavati went to surrender himself to the police.
- The Jury declared Nanavati not guilty. The case was referred to Hon’ble High Court under Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Division Bench of the High Court declared the accused guilty under Section 302 of IPC, 1860. Then, the accused made an appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court and at the same time, he made an application to the Governor under Article 161.
- The judgment was able to grab the attention of the nation because the crime of adultery had given birth to the crime of murder not amounting to culpable homicide. The accused moreover was a decorated officer of the Indian Navy and such crime committed by him got accepted by the society owing to the pitiful journalism towards him. The burden of proof upon the prosecution was released by establishing the facts to utmost clarity which is indeed essential in the process of adjudication.
- Also, referring the case to higher judiciary and jury being erroneous on point of law was something that pointed out the amount of corruption in judiciary resultant of which was the abolition of the jury system in succeeding Criminal procedure.
- Sushant Singh Rajput case:
- On June 14, 2020, Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found hanging from the ceiling of his Bandra apartment in Mumbai. The police registered his death as a case of “accidental death”. The post-mortem report recorded “asphyxia due to hanging” as the cause of death and also ruled out foul play, citing no signs of struggle or external injuries. On July 25, Sushant’s father filed an FIR against Rhea Chakraborty and five others in Patna under Sections 306 (abetment of suicide), 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement), 380 (theft in dwelling house), 406 (punishment for criminal breach of trust) and 420 (cheating and dishonesty inducing delivery of property). After this, many incidents happened that involved drug abuse and media “convicting” Rhea Chakraborty as the murderer. However, AIIM dismissed the theories of murder. The decision of the case is yet to come.
- Jessica Lal Murder Case:
- Manu Sharma, son of Congress former Union Minister Venod Sharma, shot Jessica Lal to death in 1999 when she refused to offer liquor to him and his associates. Following the murder, the accused was acquitted by the trial court, and the matter received immediate media attention. This case was one of the top cases in which public pressure and the media persuaded the justice system to reconsider the case. Even though Manu Sharma was acquitted in 2006 because the Delhi police failed to prove the basis on which they had built their case, the Delhi High Court condemned him to life in jail after a public outcry over the case’s media portrayal.
- Ayodhya Dispute:
- One of the most popular cases in challenging India’s democracy and secularism was the Ayodhya Dispute.
- The Babri Masjid was a 16th Century mosque built by Mir Baqi, Mughal emperor Babur’s general in Ayodhya. Some Hindus believed that it was built after demolishing a temple for Lord Rama in what was believed to be his birthplace. The dispute took the form of a court case. The Faizabad District Court in February 1986, ordered that Babri Masjid’s premises be unlocked so that Hindus could offer prayers. As soon as the locks of the masjid were open, mobilization began on both sides. This local dispute became a major national question and led to communal tensions. The BJP, to generate public support, took out massive march knowns as the Rathyatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya.
- In December 1992, the situation had become tense at Ayodhya. On December 6, 1992, thousands of people gathered from all over the country, demolished the mosque.
- On 9 November 2019, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, announced their verdict; it vacated the previous decision and ruled that the land belonged to the government based on tax records. It further ordered the land to be handed over to a trust to build the Hindu temple. It also ordered the government to give an alternate five-acre tract of land to the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board to build the mosque.
- This matter had been dragged through the media for a long time, with minor arguments and other issues surfacing, all of which served to amplify the tensions between the two communities across India.
BOON OR BANE?
Media performs the vital functions of democracy by acting as a mirror that puts forward facts in front of the public. Media is indispensable in today’s world. Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India guarantees that every person has a right to express his or her opinion. This article, indirectly, gives the media the power to perform media trials.
The media, through the trials, has disclosed several scams, scandals and cases of fraud and corruption. However, it has its disadvantages as well. As mentioned earlier, Media is a double-edged weapon. The media trials convert the accused into convicted where the public deems the accused as guilty, without actually being proven in the court of law. This poses lots of problems for the accused. The assumption of media encroaches upon the right of the accused to have a fair trial.
The media trial influences the public as well the decisions of the court, further affecting the politics of the nation. The investigative reports of media trials result in more harm than benefit. The accused faces mental trauma and breach of personal privacy, which violates Article 21 of the Constitution.
Media is a very powerful tool that moulds public opinion, hence, these trials are the reason for bias in public opinion which further manipulates the public.
The media is a cornerstone of our Indian democracy, serving the greater good of society. But media coverage of a case should not obstruct the legal process. The media trials have a more detrimental than good impact. The media trials are harmful not only to the individual’s reputation but also to the court’s decision. As a result, media trials have only worked to assist people in a few circumstances, but this does not occur in all cases, necessitating the imposition of limits.
The Court is a competent forum that must work without instilling prejudice in the public mind. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to a free and fair trial and it must be upheld. The rule of law must prevail.
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