What Kind Of Reporting Amounts To 'Media Trial'? Bombay High Court Gives Guidelines

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18 Jan 2021 4:01 PM GMT

  • What Kind Of Reporting Amounts To Media Trial? Bombay High Court Gives Guidelines

    The Bombay High Court on Monday in its 251-page judgement on a clutch of PILs regarding 'media trials' in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, observed that the media ought to avoid reports touching upon an ongoing investigation and present facts which are in public interest rather than "what, according to the media, the public is interested in." The division bench of Chief...

    The Bombay High Court on Monday in its 251-page judgement on a clutch of PILs regarding 'media trials' in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, observed that the media ought to avoid reports touching upon an ongoing investigation and present facts which are in public interest rather than "what, according to the media, the public is interested in."

    The division bench of Chief Justice Dipankat Dutta and Justice GS Kulkarni directed the print and electronic media to exercise restraint and refrain from publishing any news item, debate, discussion on interview while reporting on certain cases or at a particular stage of investigation (Nilesh Navalakha and others v Union of India and others and connected cases).

    There should be no report/discussion/debate or interview which could harm the interests of the accused being investigated or a witness… "With a view to satiate the thirst of stealing a march over competitors in the field of reporting," they observed.

    The judgment laid down a list of 'indicative but not exhaustive' list of reports which tend to cause prejudice to ongoing investigation.

    The instances are as follows:-

    a. In relation to death by suicide, depicting the deceased as one having a weak character or intruding in any manner on the privacy of the deceased;

    b. That causes prejudice to an ongoing inquiry/investigation by:

    (i) Referring to the character of the accused/victim and creating an atmosphere of prejudice for both;

    (ii) Holding interviews with the victim, the witnesses and/or any of their family members and displaying it on screen;

    (iii) Analyzing versions of witnesses, whose evidence could be vital at the stage of trial;

    (iv) Publishing a confession allegedly made to a police officer by an accused and trying to make the public believe that the same is a piece of evidence which is admissible before a Court and there is no reason for the Court not to act upon it, without letting the public know the nitty-gritty of the Evidence Act, 1872;

    (v) Printing photographs of an accused and thereby facilitating his identification;

    (vi) Criticizing the investigative agency based on half-baked information without proper research;

    (vii) Pronouncing on the merits of the case, including pre-judging the guilt or innocence qua an accused or an individual not yet wanted in a case, as the case may be;

    (viii) Recreating/reconstructing a crime scene and depicting how the accused committed the crime;

    (ix) Predicting the proposed/future course of action including steps that ought to be taken in a particular direction to complete the investigation; and

    (x) Leaking sensitive and confidential information from materials collected by the investigating agency;

    c. Acting in any manner so as to violate the provisions of the Programme Code as prescribed under section 5 of the Cable TV Network Act read with rule 6 of the CTVN Rules and thereby inviting contempt of court; and

    d. Indulging in character assassination of any individual and thereby mar his reputation.

    The bench said that while these guidelines are not intended to exhaustive, they are indicative and any report carried by the print or electronic media needs to conform to the Programme Code, the norms of journalistic standards and the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Regulations; in default thereof, apart from action that could be taken under the prevailing regulatory mechanism.

    "The erring media house could make itself liable to face an action in contempt, i.e., criminal contempt within the meaning of section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act which, as and when initiated, would obviously have to be decided by the competent court on its own merits and in accordance with law." the court observed.

    The judgment also passed scathing observations against the reports of Republic TV and Times Now in the SSR case, observing such reports were 'prima facie contemptuous'.

    Media Trial Interferes With Administration Of Justice; Amounts To Contempt Of Court : Bombay High Court

    The Court also gave certain illustrations of the prejudice caused to investigation due to unregulated media trial. The Court demonstrated how such media reports can affect the accused, witnesses, police etc.

    1. Impact, qua the accused, is that, he could be put on guard. If an accused is not being trailed by the police, it does not mean that the investigator is turning a blind eye towards him. The essence of a police investigation is skillful inquiry and collection of material and evidence in a manner by which the potential culpable individuals are not forewarned. Because of unnecessary meddling by the media, the accused can destroy evidence and avoid arrest by absconding, making the task of the investigator difficult in searching for the truth.

    2. Impact, qua an innocent person, if he were projected as an accused along with the principal accused and hounded by the investigator based on media reporting, is that he stands the risk of his reputation, built up on years of sincere efforts and good work, being damaged beyond imagination and may, in rare cases, lead to suicide or attempts in relation thereto. It does not take much timefor the viewers of the media report to forget the past good deeds of such person and to accept as gospel truth what has been reported by the media, but insofar as the targeted individual is concerned, the loss, injury and prejudice could be irreparable. This would be against a just social order.

    3. Impact, qua a vital witness, is that he could be won over, threatened or even physically harmed to ensure that he does not tender evidence. Nothing can be more damaging in the pursuit of truth if a vital witness does not turn up for tendering evidence or even if he turns up, is declared hostile by the prosecution for reasons too obvious. The prosecution theory would fall into pieces, unless of course there is other credible evidence to nail the accused.

    4. Impact, qua the investigator, could be equally pernicious and cause miscarriage of justice. On account of human failing, the investigator could be influenced by the media reports; although he may be following a particular track, which in fact is the right track, he could abandon the right track and follow a different track leading him to nowhere. On the contrary, if the investigator instead of changing tracks as suggested by the media follows the track chosen by him, he could be maligned by the media and accused of improper investigation creating an adverse opinion in the minds of the viewers which, in any circumstance, is undesirable and unwarranted.

    5. Impact, qua the investigation, is that publicity in respect of certain aspects of a case by media reporting that the investigator is indulging in secrecy can hamper the course of due investigation. Although trials in court are open proceedings to which each member of the public can have access unless proceedings are held in-camera, there is no law requiring the investigator to conduct investigation openly and to lay before the public, at different stages of investigation, evidence that he has collected in course thereof.

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