Media Trial: A Conviction Before The Trial?

Ruchir Misra

14 March 2024 9:41 AM GMT

  • Media Trial: A Conviction Before The Trial?
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    On 13th September 2013, The Supreme Court of India ordered the Union Home Affairs Ministry to develop a thorough SoP within three months on the subject matter of press conferences given by police officials in criminal cases[1]. This was done to prevent the consternation faced by the person who are put in the dock of Media Trail on the basis of statements given by these officials. This was done because the manner in which high-profile matters like the Sushant Singh and Aryan Khan cases are being publicised in recent times has spawned a new debate between “free speech and expression” and the “right to a fair trial”. The proliferation of “media trials” is undermining one of the core concepts of criminal jurisprudence: the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty”.

    The notion “Media Trial” or “Trial by Media” got its name in the United States of America during the period of 19th Century and became familiar with the Indian legal system in the famous, or rather, infamous case of “K.M Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra”[2]. It is not a legal term that is defined in any statute or any legal glossary. Many legal luminaries have time to time tried to give a definition to this concept. However, the most apt one came from the pen of R. Surette who described this in words “Media trials are defined as certain regional or national news 'events' in which the criminal justice system is co-opted by the media as a source of high drama and entertainment.”[3] In our country, it was briefly specified by the Supreme Court as an informal trial where there is a “perception of being guilty” and whose verdict would only injure the chance of fair proceedings and tamper the accused's right to get a just and impartial trial. It contains the ability to declare any innocent as guilty, or/and vice versa, in the eyes of the general public.

    Court's View On Media Trial

    There is no disagreement on the fact that the media personnel have a legal as well as constitutional right to cover the events that are happening in courts and disseminate that same to their audience. This will boost the trust of the public in the proceedings[4]. However, this absolute freedom sometimes develops in a parallel criminal trial of the suspects in the news studios. To counter it, this issue was raised before the Supreme Court in “R.K. Anand v. Registrar, Delhi High Court”[5] and the Apex Court, for the very first time, noted that a concurrent trial by the media has no legal standing in our judicial system as it creates a conflict between the right to “free speech and expression” and the “right to a fair trial”. However, in a later ruling, the Delhi High Court clarified that if both of these rights came into conflict, then the former would be given primacy over the other viewing the larger public interest[6].

    The Apex Court in “Shreya Singhal v. Union of India”[7] again commented on this point by saying that discussing or advocating for a cause, even if it is unpopular, is acceptable; however, when it runs in an unbridled manner, it is suggested that it should be regulated by legislation. In other words, the court was uttering that when the media trial is within a line to ensure that a thorough investigation and an impartial trial are conducted, it is legally and morally correct; but when it crosses the line and is televised only to generates a sensation and to draw profit out it, then must be prohibited by law.

    Prior to this, considering that unfettered freedom of speech and expression would be equivalent to providing unrestricted permission, the Apex Court in “Re.: Harijai Singh”[8] has voiced that press freedom is neither total nor infinite. If it were left entirely unrestricted, even somewhat, it would cause calamity and turmoil.

    In another significant ruling titled “R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu”[9], the Supreme Court clarified that Article 19(1) ensures freedom of speech and expression, which also covers the right to freedom of the press. But this privilege is subject to reasonable constraints as Article 19(2) expressly lists decency and defamation as two of the grounds to curtail the rights of the media.

    In India, the judiciary and the press are two cornerstones on which the bedrock of this vibrant democracy lies. They play critical and important roles in upholding the rule of law and the letter of the Constitution. It is crucial that both must complement, rather than try to replace, one another[10]. On one hand, the media has a duty to report the incident; while on the other hand, the accused also have a right to be protected during criminal investigations. Both institutions are responsible for ensuring that material is only obtained and shared with the public after it has undergone thorough investigation, evaluation, and examination[11]. This is necessary because as the case proceeds, it becomes more and more accustomed to the eyes of the public, posing a threat not only to the image of the accused but also to his/her family as a whole. It becomes tough for him/her and his/her whole family to live a dignified life even though he/she got acquittal after going through a full judicial proceeding carried out by the court.[12]

    It is pertinent to note here that the Apex Court has, till now, not framed any guidelines to evaluate any situation where it is necessary to prohibit the publication/telecasting of the facts of a case in any print/television or digital media. It only said that the gag order can be passed when there is a scenario of actual and substantial damage with the circulation of the same. The Court issued a warning stating that it is in the best interest of the society that the legal process is observed but during this, the outcome of the case must not be overridden or even slightly diverted by protests or other forms of public discourse[13].

    The renowned Public Interest Litigation case known by the name of “Nilesh Navalakha v. Union of India”[14] was the first occasion when any court established standards on how media publications and networks should report legal proceedings.

    The Court issued several norms which include the following fundamental directives:

    • The privacy and dignity of the victim must always be respected;
    • The sensitive information related to the case should never be made public.
    • The confession/admission made in front of an investigator cannot published;
    • The interviews of anyone who is connected to the case may not be undertaken when the matter is sub-judice.

    It stated some other observations at the conclusion of the judgment such as the press must deliver news stories in their genuine and accurate form. It must include the account of the events as it was honestly recorded, without exaggeration or bias, and any form of distortion. The incidence should not be overemphasised for the sake of gaining more and more viewers.

    Comparative Analysis Of Laws Of Different Countries

    It is essential to pay attention to the function that various nations' rules, regulations, laws, and policies play in handling the media. The test under the “principles of natural justice” is a compelling requirement for this sort of comparative study to determine if the country's current laws are adequate or not. Only by this examination, it be possible to determine whether the policies which the Indian media follows are good for the public, or only for their personal gain.

    United Kingdom

    In India, the Media often crosses the line while covering the cases that draw the interest of the people. They always tend to question the courts. It will not be incorrect to state that there has been a misunderstanding of the distinction between scandalising the adjudicator and scandalising the court. In contrast, there are strict criminal laws in place in the UK to address this problem. In that country, insulting a court is indeed a criminal offence. As a result, it is witnessing a growth of responsible journalism. There are several statutes and institutions such as the “Crime and Courts Act, 2013”, “Human Rights Act, 1998”, “U.K. Contempt of Court Act, 1981”, “British Press Council, 1953”, “The General Council of the Press, 1963” that address this issue.

    United States Of America

    The First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids the enactment of any laws that restrict the constitutionally protected right to free expression. This right is equally valid in countries with a free press, such as India. This specific amendment is based on the premise that the public interest is important to maintain the wide dissemination of information without obstructing the adversarial and various sources. Although the First Amendment is obligatory on the States, its 14th Amendment prohibits them from drafting any legislation that will rob anybody of their rights, including their freedom and liberty, without first ensuring that due process has been followed.


    It is widely recognised that a trial must take place in a fair and neutral manner. In a situation where there are continued “out of court” proceedings, it is impossible that an accused's guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. This establishment is a very necessary condition of anyone's conviction. A conviction without this could never be upheld in the eyes of the law. As a result, the author would offer some suggestions in order to achieve this standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” so that an actual trial may be held even in highly publicised matters. These are as follows:

    a)The guidelines given by the 17th Law Commission in its 200th Report titled “Trial by Media: Free Speech and Fair Trial under Criminal Procedure Code, 1973” must be strictly adhered to.

    b)Important statutes such as “Prasar Bharti Act, 1990”, and the “Cable Networks Act, 1995”, must be updated so that their stipulations do not remain a mere formality in this digital era.

    c)The “Press Council of India” and the “News Broadcasting Standards Authority” should make their regulations compulsory rather than making it discretionary.

    d) The SoP for the conduct of digital media and online news businesses must be vigorously implemented.

    e)The identification of the suspect, as well as the identity of the witness, must not be revealed at any point during the proceedings in prominent and emotionally charged cases. Its violations must result in a penalty.

    In a democracy, the press acts as a watchdog to make sure that every trial is done truthfully, openly, and thoroughly. Nevertheless, this watchdog frequently forgets its pious duty and diverts from the path. Sometimes, it itself becomes the judge and runs a kangaroo court to convict a suspect. To control this, it is imperative that the press refrain from abusing its freedom and undermining the core principles of criminal law. It must understand that this freedom is a duty that requires the truth, and only truth, to be shared with the people. Through this way only, the media would perform its original duty towards the nation.

    Ruchir Misra, is a third year Law Student at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. Views are personal.

    [1] Public Union for Civil Liberties v. State of Maharashtra, Crl. A. No. 1255/1999.

    [2] K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1962 SC 605.

    [3] R. Surette, Media Trials, 17 J. of Cr. Just. 293 (1989).

    [4] Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Ltd. and Ors. v. Securities and Exchange Board of India and Anr., (2012) 10 SCC 603.

    [5] (2009) 8 SCC 106.

    [6] Vijay Singhal and Ors. v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi and Anr., 2013 SCC OnLine Del 1221.

    [7] (2015) 5 SCC 1.

    [8] (1996) 6 SCC 466.

    [9] AIR 1995 SC 264.

    [10] Justice R.S. Chauhan, Trial by Media: An International Perspective (SCC Online Blog 5 November 2021) <> accessed 15 October 2021.

    [11] Mother Diary Foods & Processing Ltd v. Zee Telefilms Ltd., AIR 2005 Del 195.

    [12] Kartongen Kemi Och Forvaltning AB v. State through CBI, (2004) 72 DRJ 693.

    [13] M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal and Anr., (2005) 2 SCC 686.

    [14] 2021 SCC OnLine Bom 56.

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