It has become very normal these days that we see media intervention in under trial cases. Due to media criticism, judges also feel compelled to take the decisions accordingly. Declaration on an issue by the media becomes the final verdict in the trial courts and this happens mostly in high profile cases. It is essential to have a free and healthy media functionary so that democracy sustains to its true meaning. But, reincarnated as a public court, the media themselves start investigating and forming public opinion. Due to this Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India, talking about the limitation of freedom of speech and expression comes into question and controversy.
Looking at the present situation- media and press significantly gets involved wherein justice is denied, delayed or manipulated. William Pfeifer has commented regarding the same by giving a new direction to think, stating- ‘the rapid growth of social media and online networking has had a significant impact in the courtroom procedures, particularly concerning jurors. Some jurors have triggered mistrials and new trials as a result of inappropriate social media activity during trials.
‘Trial by media’ as defied under Blacks’ Law Dictionary- is a 21st century term meaning to describe the impact of television & newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating widespread perception of guilt or innocence, before, or after, a verdict in the Court of law.
Instances of Media Trial-
11 years back, Jassica Lal Murder case took the country to utter shock. A 24 year old was murdered by a 34 years old man named Manu Sharma, who allegedly had a very strong & influential background. Witnesses turned hostile, evidence was tampered and justice was denied. This showed the loopholes of the Indian legal system. This is when media and public came forward and compelled prosecution to appeal in Delhi HC to fast track proceedings. This breakdown of judicial system was termed as miscarriage of justice by the media. There was a sting operation carried out and intense media and public pressure was built up resulting in the guilty’s life sentence.
Again in Santosh’s case of 1996, who was the son of then Joint Commissioner of Police in Delhi was accused of raping and murdering his domestic servant. He was acquitted by the Session’s Court on the account of benefit of doubt, even though the DNA report, evidences, witnesses, fingerprints pointed towards the accused. Due to the pressure by media and public, later the case was reopened and CBI in 2000 submitted an appeal against the verdict. Due to media scrutiny fast tracks of the case, Santosh was awarded death penalty later converted into life imprisonment in 2011.
Arushi Talwar Murder Case had been in the news and still manages to be a mystery. Due to the media trial there was tampering of evidences and a lot of unwanted chaos. Media has been considered as a Public Court, but it has somewhere assumed the role of an opinion maker and creator of public opinion. Even before the Court could take cognizance of the case, media pressure and coverage has already framed Arushi’s parents as murderers of their child. Media interference does no always prove fruitful, it doers manipulate the situations at time.
Legality of Media Trials-
Media has now started to interfere into Court proceedings overlooking the principles- ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ & ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’. In the current situation, media intervention has a changed view. They themselves do the investigation and research, form a public opinion and prove the guilt of the accused even before it is proved before a Court of Law.
According to the 200th Report by the Law Commission of India, if the media exercises an unrestricted or rather unregulated freedom in publishing information about a criminal case and prejudices the mind of the public and those who are to adjudicate; if it projects a suspect or an accused as if he has already been adjudged guilty well before courtroom procedure, there is a possibility which can indulge accused prejudice.
Unnecessary media hype somewhere misguides the concept of free and fair trial. At times it can also result to contempt of Court. Not only does the real facts and circumstances get distorted and hidden, but it also creates problems for the witnesses. Disclosing the witness’s identity endanger their life as well as the truth behind the case. A report written by V. Venkatesan states that- ‘there is a need to balance the rights of the accused to a fair trial with the rights of the media and the public to expose these flaws’.
Legal System works on evidences and not on emotions, but when there is immense public pressure, it becomes difficult to act according to the law. Circumstances need consideration and there is manipulation affecting the judgment. The judge presiding over a case is influenced. Legal System is not all freed from corruption and malpractices. Extension of dates, threatening of witnesses and turning them hostile, tampering of evidences, pendency of cases, high profile culprits get a clean chit, are adding to the reasons and flaws of the India Legal System. Delhi gang rape case- ‘Nirbhaya’s case’, media took up its strongest stand which accelerated the matter and people’s movement demanding immediate action and justice. Ethics cannot be above law. It is essential to follow a line of control in times of public trials. Medial literacy is the need of the hour. There can be o denial to the fact that media is the 4th pillar of democracy and has a vital role to play. But the fact that media trials do somewhere disrupt the authenticity of the case and ultimately the judgment can’t be denied either. Media should help in highlighting the issues and problems faced by the people. It should help combat high profile involvement in cases, but it shouldn’t pass on its judgment creating a public opinion about a case which the Court hasn’t scrutinized yet. Regulation and better method of functioning will help delivering justice to its literal meaning.