The media is an indispensable pillar of our democracy, and its freedom is implicitly guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The media plays a major role in our everyday lives, and is instrumental in moulding public opinion through its coverage of events. But has its activity started hindering the functioning of the police, and that of the courts?
The Aarushi Talwar case, the Nirbhaya rape case, the Sheena Bora murder case and most recently the Kanhaiya Kumar incident share a frightening denominator, that of "trial by media". There is continuing concern in our judiciary regarding the media storms surrounding such cases. When India strives to uphold "due process" as the cornerstone of our criminal justice system, media trials seem to be hindering the rights of the accused, sometimes securing them a conviction in the eye of the public even before a fair trial, and interfering with the process of justice. The media is fast rising as a "janta ki adalat", trying cases and delivering verdicts of its own volition, undermining the administration of criminal justice in India.
How media trials work
Three broad stages of a media trial can be easily identified. The first is the explanation of crime, where a correspondent on the crime scene describes it, followed by a scrutiny of facts by the presenter in the studio. At this stage, details of the FIR and forensics are omitted, as they not made available to media personnel.
Rhetorical questions put to the audience presume guilt on the part of the accused, and sway public opinion against them...
The next stage involves conducting a phantom trial' (a good example of which can be found here) in the form of a talk show or a debate, with panellists offering their versions of events and their personal opinions. The public, listening to these opinions, begins to build its own, unaware of the actual investigation and evidence against the accused.
The final stage is that of verdict delivery, where the experts on the television show pronounce their judgment. This judgment is quickly adopted by the news presenter, who adds his own take, and leaves the viewers with a poll which is later projected as the "voice of the nation."
Television investigations are highly selective and unrepresentative. They are metro city-centred, focused mostly on the upper and middle class, just like the audiences affecting advertising revenues today. The quintessential media trial works by appealing to this audience's sentiments. Shouldn't a mother be sent to jail for killing her own child? Shouldn't an irresponsible drunk driver be brought to book for running homeless people over in his fancy car? Shouldn't the heartless journalist who kicked a refugee carrying his child across the border be fired from her job? Rhetorical questions put to the audience presume guilt on the part of the accused, and sway public opinion against them, often without holistic coverage of all facets of the case.
Media trials often create pressure [on judges] to satisfy the public and deliver a verdict in consonance with "what the nation wants".
Media trials are problematic on many levels. A fundamental principle of criminal law in India is that of presumption of innocence -- the accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law beyond all reasonable doubt, but we find the public convicting the accused of a crime they may or may not have committed. Recently, former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro revealed that he has written to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court seeking intervention in the ongoing media trial in the Sheena Bora case, as he believes that the media is investigating the crime and revealing details of its own volition. He fears that this has led to Indrani Mukerjea's conviction in the public's mind even before she has been afforded a trial. Cases like this one being given pages and hours of uninterrupted coverage also overshadow several other issues of national importance.
Further, judges in our courts must remain neutral and unbiased at all times, to afford the accused a free and fair trial. Media trials often create pressure to satisfy the public and deliver a verdict in consonance with "what the nation wants". This was demonstrated full well in the Nithari case, where the trial court convicted the accused Mohinder Pandher contrary to all evidence and despite a clean chit being given to him by the CBI, due to media and public influence. This verdict was later reversed by the Allahabad High Court.
[J]udges assign meaning to the sentiments of the masses, which have been manufactured by the media in the first place.
While addressing a meeting held by the Bar Council of India in Chennai, Justice Kurian said, "Please stop trying (cases) in the media till a case is over. Never try a case in the media, it creates a lot of pressure on judges, they are also human beings." He recalled how a judge who had adjudicated the Nirbhaya rape case had once told him: "If I had not given that punishment they would have hung me, the media had already given their verdict, (like) it is going to be this only."
The irony of the situation is stinging. Media trials operate like a vicious circle -- the media influences the public, which in turn influences the judiciary. From an interactionist perspective, one can observe that judges assign meaning to the sentiments of the masses, which have been manufactured by the media in the first place. This assignment of meaning leads them to believe that they must act to satisfy the "collective conscience". When our honourable judges fall prey to such pressure, one would have to be naïve to expect a fair judicial trial.
The Sheena Bora murder case is the epitome of the evils of media trials. Along with mainstream print and visual media, popular internet sites too are participating in sensationalizing the case. "From a murder most foul to the lies people weave to deceive, the Sheena Bora-Indrani Mukherjea case has all the trappings of a thriller," said the tagline of a piece on a popular internet-media site.
While censorship is definitely not the answer, the media must be encouraged, through sanctions if need be, to present a fair and unbiased view of criminal cases...
While there are guidelines in place to regulate the language and content of news, they are being flouted daily. According to the Press Council of India (PCI)'s 1991 guidelines, sensational and provocative headlines must he avoided, and news pieces must be devoid of value judgment and personal comments. New Norms of Journalistic Conduct were issued by the PCI in 2010, Part A (41) of which seeks to discourage trial by the media by regulating sensational and gossip-related content and protecting the privacy of accused persons. However, it is disheartening to observe that one need only tune into popular "news" channels conducting phantom trials almost daily to gauge how blatantly these regulations are being flouted.
Unbiased reporting is a skill mainstream media seems to disregard completely. While censorship is definitely not the answer, the media must be encouraged, through sanctions if need be, to present a fair and unbiased view of criminal cases so as to not interfere with investigatory and judicial processes. Our media must toe the fine line between investigative journalism and biased reporting. When a heinous crime takes the nation by storm, the culprit must be punished at all costs. But we as consumers of mainstream media must exercise responsibility as well; are we willing to believe the version spoon-fed to us by reporters, without seeking a counter-narrative?
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