Media became a boon to enlighten people and make them more aware and concerned about the whole world. The democracy has essentially three pillars viz., legislature, executive and judiciary. Media has become the fourth pillar of the democracy. It highlighted the social, economic, cultural and legal problems of the society. The Media in India stands on the pillar of the Constitution of India. Media-fourth pillar of democracy is the very fabric and mirror of the society. It has the power to influence and revolutionize the masses. From the ink of its pen to the sound of its mic, Media can build and malign an image of a person simultaneously. In fact, it can change the governments! A free media is a prerequisite to democracy. Though India has the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression along with the freedom of press under the clause 19(1) (a) but, the limitations to its absolute freedom are stated in its very next clause.
Media Trials v. Freedom of Speech and Expression
Freedom of speech plays a crucial role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. Similarly, the persons in power should be able to keep the people informed about their policies and projects, therefore, it can be said that freedom of speech is the mother of all other liberties.
Venkataramiah, J. of the Supreme Court of India in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India has stated:
“freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate [Government] cannot make responsible judgments. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities.” the freedom of press is essential for the proper functioning of the democratic process. Democracy means Government of the people, by the people and for the people; it is obvious that every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and in order to enable him to intelligently exercise his right of making a choice, free and general discussion of public matters is absolutely essential.
In R. Rajagopal v. State of T.N the Supreme Court of India has held that freedom of the press extends to engaging in uninhabited debate about the involvement of public figures in public issues and events. But, as regards their private life, a proper balancing of freedom of the press as well as the right of privacy and maintained defamation has to be performed in terms of the democratic way of life laid down in the Constitution.
Media Trials v. Fair Trial
Media Trial can sometimes become a problem because it gives rise to two conflicting ideologies- a fair trial and freedom of Press. Both the concepts has an effect on the public lives. Freedom of public in the democracy gives the right to the freedom of Press. free and fair trial is a basic principle of the judicial system.
Article 14, 20, 21 and 22 gives various rights to a person through which he can exercise his right to free, and fair trial and the media cannot go beyond their rights to assert their rights
This is used as a justification for campaign and investigative journalism.. The right to fair trial has been held to be part of the right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution . The “Right to Fair Trial”, i.e., a trial uninfluenced by extraneous pressures is recognized as a basic tenet of justice in India. Provisions aimed at safeguarding this right are contained under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India. Our criminal justice system adheres to ‘presumption of innocence’ i.e. a person is presumed innocent unless proved guilty by the competent court. The Media’s role is to publicize the news objectively which implies to the publicity of factual part and public issues of any news and not to adjudicate upon any case. The electronic media and print media are now submerged in an unappeasable competition of TRPs(Television Rating Points) and sales respectively. The Media is directed by the Press Council of India neither to give excessive publicity to accused, victims, witnesses nor to disclose any confidential information that may hamper or prejudice investigation nor identify witnesses as they may become hostile nor to run any parallel trial putting undue pressure on the judge or jury adjudicating upon the case
Media Trials v. Right to be Represented
The media have started to force the lawyers not to take up the cases of accused, infringing the rights of accused to be represented by a lawyer of his choice before the Court. The media trial is in this manner against the principles of natural justice.
Constitutionality of Media Trials
1) Freedom of Press – Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, 1966 states that every person has the right to freedom of speech. However this right is subject to some duties and responsibilities and is subject to right and reputation of other individuals. In the judicial pronouncement of In Re: Harijan Singh and Anr and In Re: Vijay Kumar The Supreme Court recognized media as an essential advantage in the democratic setup. Right to information and the right to broadcast is also conferred by Article 19 of our Constitution.
2) Immunity under Contempt of Court Act, 1971 – Under this Act, pre-trial publications are given immunity against contempt proceedings, certain acts like the publication of any material by the media by the pre-trial stage can affect the interest of the parties involved in the trial.
3) Public’s Right to Know – The Supreme Court has stated that the main principle in giving the freedom to the Press it enjoys is that the public has the right to know what is happening in the society. The Supreme Court was of the view that those who know anything about the matter might come forward with information, it reduces crime through society’s disapproval of certain acts, and most importantly it leads to a public discussion of important issues.
4) Public Participation – Trial by media is often justified by giving the argument that the media highlights what is already there in the minds of the people
5) Legal Norms and Journalistic Conduct – The Press Council is instituted under The Press Council Act, 1978. The main objective of the Council is to ensure the freedom of Press. The Council also holds the authority to sanction punishment for irresponsible journalism.
Is Media Trial A Contempt Of Court?
Criminal contempt has further been divided into three types:
- Prejudicing trial, and
- Hindering the administration of justice.
Prejudice or interference with the judicial process: This provision owes its origin to the principle of natural justice; ‘every accused has a right to a fair trial’ clubbed with the principle that ‘Justice may not only be done it must also seem to be done’. There are multiple ways in which attempts are made to prejudice trial. If such cases are allowed to be successful will be that the persons will be convicted of offences which they have not committed. Contempt of court has been introduced in order to prevent such unjust and unfair trials. No publication, which is calculated to poison the minds of jurors, intimidate witnesses or parties or to create an atmosphere in which the administration of justice would be difficult or impossible, amounts to contempt Commenting on the pending cases or abuse of party may amount to contempt only when a case is tri-able by a judge. No editor has the right to assume the role of an investigator to try to prejudice the court against any person.
in the case of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr. where in it was observed by the learned judge that:
“ …… When litigation is pending before a Court, no one shall comment on it in such a way there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of the action, as for instance by influence on the Judge, the witnesses or by prejudicing mankind in general against a party to the cause. Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a contempt of Court if he prejudices the truth before it is ascertained in the proceedings. To this general rule of fair trial one may add a further rule and that is that none shall, by misrepresentation or otherwise, bring unfair pressure to bear on one of the parties to a cause so as to force him to drop his complaint or defence. It is always regarded as of the first importance that the law which we have just stated should be maintained in its full integrity. But in so stating the law we must bear in mind that there must appear to be ‘a real and substantial danger of prejudice.”
In a democratic country media has an indispensible role. All the pillars of the democracy need to function independently without intruding upon the functions of others. The legislature has to perform great responsibility while drafting the laws on trial by media without curtailing their freedom. Media has the right to comment and discuss on the judgments of the case but they have no freedom to start a trial of sub-judice matter. The accused’s right to fair trial is always on zenith than the freedom of media to start the trial of his pending case. Media trial vitiates the purpose of justice. After all, Judges are also human beings, they are not only acting to perpetuate their own power
 (1985) 1 SCC 641 & 664)
 ((1994) 6 SCC 632)
 (AIR1975 AP 30)
Mr. Elwin Thomas
Legal Intern @ Prerna Foundation