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Media Trials - The Modern Justice Delivery System?

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

- Parishi Jain

‘Our freedom depends in large part, on the continuation of a free press, which is the strongest guarantee of a free society.’ - Richard M. Schmidt

The modern ethos of liberty and equality and the want and the need to express one's opinions is the essence of the 21st Century. At a time when the globalisation is at its peak, and when information is emitted and obtained almost at the click of a button, every action taken by any traditional Justice Delivery Authority is questioned at every instance at the hands of the Media.

The Media is often regarded as the fourth pillar of Democracy. It is the very fabric and mirror of society. As of 2018, the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) reported the registration of more than 100,000 publications in the country; and India being the second-largest newspaper market in the world, with daily newspapers reporting a combined circulation of over 240 million copies and 1600 satellite channels[1]. With such a vast network, the Media is the primary source of information for the ordinary public and plays a critical role in shaping their perspectives and opinions. However, the question must be asked - How fair and just the Media is while reporting these cases?

The Media has reincarnated itself as the ‘Public Court’ or otherwise popularly called as the ‘Janta Adalat’ by acting as a watchdog of the system and providing a platform for the underprivileged and the hapless to voice their opinions. Time and again, it has fulfilled its duty in this capacity by covering the stories of poor farmers and bringing the issues in the notice of the administration through its investigative journalism and for providing a platform to depict the stories of the victims who were deprived of justice.

Take for example the Jessica Lal Murder Case[2]where justice had been eluding the deceased victim for years, but the Media’s campaign brought equilibrium. The accused, Mr. Manu Sharma, son of the rich and influential politician Mr. Vinod Sharma, was acquitted by the Trial Court. It was mainly due to ‘Police’s failure to establish a complete chain of circumstances leading to the incident’ and ‘all three eyewitnesses listed by the Police turning hostile during the trial.’ However, because of the extensive coverage of the matter, the Media brought the issue to the forefront of public discourse and facilitated the Justice Delivery System, as the Delhi High Court reversed the decision of the Trial Court.

So, in the present scenario of this country, where the rich and the influential still have the power to mould the case in their favour through unlawful means and suppress the hapless, then the Media is not only important but it is a necessity of the moment.

The Supreme Court of India has also recognised the importance of the freedom of the press in reporting such incidences in Indian Express Newspapers v Union of India and Ors[3]wherein they stated -

‘The expression “freedom of the press” has not been used in Article 19 but is comprehended in Article 19 (1) (a)’

Article 19 (1) (a) talks about the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression i.e. the right to hold opinions without any interference and the freedom to seek, receive, impart information or ideas either orally, or in writing or in print. In Hamdard Dawakhana v Union of India[4], the judgement of the Supreme Court read -

‘The right includes the right to acquire and impart ideas and information

of “common interest”.’

Dissenting from this, even though the freedom of the press and the right to know of the people on subjects of ‘common interest’ is essential; however, it cannot be deduced that this collective right is greater than the individual rights of the victim and the accused, like their Personal Privacy and their Right to a Fair Trial uninfluenced by any external source. The Right to a Fair Trial is an absolute right and is provided to any individual within the territory of India vide Article 14[5], Article 19[6], Article 20[7], Article 21[8] and Article 22[9] by the Constitution of India.

The Media is expected to bring matters in the view of the society, and not to pass judgement on the guilt and innocence of persons. However, most people would agree that the Media often tends to overstep the principles of innocent until proven guilty and proving beyond reasonable doubt and they give their judgement in matters which are sub judice and those which must be decided by the Courts.

The perfect example of this would be the ongoing and much controversial Sushant Singh Rajput case wherein almost every Media house has overlooked these principles and declared the accused as guilty. Moreover, they have violated the victim’s family’s personal space by explicitly commenting on the actor’s mental health without having any concrete evidence or prerequisite knowledge. Furthermore, in the Khurshid Anwar case, a Media house aired its own investigation of the rape case where they immaturely judged and labelled the accused Mr. Anwar as guilty and pushed him over the brink which ultimately led him to commit suicide.

This Janta Adalat has shifted the trials from the courtrooms to the living rooms of the viewers. Needless to say that because of the extensive reach of the Media, it reaches and moulds the perspectives of millions of people and creates a bias. Furthermore, such portrayal of the character of an accused is imbibed in the minds of the people such that even if the Court, who is the ultimate authority of the Criminal Justice Delivery System, may find the accused as innocent, but the people will continue to look at him/her as the culprit.

Nevertheless, some regulatory measures exist. For example, the Press Council of India[10], and Prasar Bharti[11], since their inception has regulated the power of the Press to prevent publication of prejudiced content. Furthermore, the Contempt of Courts Act[12] and Article 129[13] and Article 215[14] of the Constitution also play a significant role in this matter. Under these provisions, a journalist may be held liable for the Contempt of Court where he/she published anything which goes against ‘Fair Trial’ or which may impair the impartiality of the Court of Justice during any part of the proceedings. However, such extreme measures are taken only in rare cases.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, once said -

‘I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.’

However, the Media is like a double-edged sword and it is imperative to strike a balance between the aforementioned collective rights and individual rights. Therefore, the Media must adhere to the ‘reasonable limits prescribed by law’ for the sake of the protection of these rights and to maintain the impartiality of the Court. Conclusively, the Constitutionality of Media trials depends on the impact it leaves on the society as for the establishment of any Rule of Law anywhere, the Freedom of the Press, as well as the independence of the Judiciary are both necessary.

Parishi is a second year student at Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai.


[1]SC Desk, PRESS AND MEDIA: THE FOURTH PILLAR OF DEMOCRACY (2020), (last visited Aug 25, 2020). [2]SidharthaVashisht @ Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 179 OF 2007. [3]1986 AIR 515. [4]1960 AIR 554. [5]Equality before Law. [6]Protection of certain rights regarding Freedom of Speech, etc. [7]Protection in respect of conviction for an offence. [8]Protection of Life and Personal Liberty. [9]Protection against arrest and detention in certain cases. [10]Press Council of India Act [ No. 34 of 1965]. [11]Prasar Bharti (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990. [12]Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. [13]Supreme Court to be a court of record The Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself. [14]High Courts to be courts of record Every High Court shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.

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