Media is regarded as one of the four pillars of democracy. And it plays a vital role in moulding the opinion of the society and it has the potential of changing the whole viewpoint through which people make their perceptions on various events. Media Trial describes the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person's reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt irrespective of any verdict in a court of law.
Media Trials can be traced back to the 20th century although the phrase “Media trials” had been coined lately but the phrase had derived its meaning from the case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1921) who was discharged by the court of law, but had lost all his reputation & prestige along with his job after the media had declared him “guilty”. Another renowned case was the trial of O.J. Simpson (1995), where the media had promoted the case and deeply influenced the minds of the viewers even above the status of the court. It is obvious that media deeply encourages or influences the views of public.
There has been no legal system where the media is given the power to try a case. Every coin has two sides so is the case with media trials and journalism, at certain instances journalist portrays a pre- decided image of an accused thereby tearing his/ her reputation that can eventually affect the trial and the judgment, henceforth trial by media. Sheena Bohra murder case is a famous case in which the excruciating eyes of the media have influenced the personal life of the main accused Indrani Mukherjea that arose a debate on the matter of media trial of the accused. In the awake of such cases the ethics of journalism were usually questioned.
Media Trials v. Judiciary
In India, media trials have assumed significance. There have been several cases where the media had taken the case into their own hands and declared judgment against an accused contrary to fair trials in court. There have been quite infamous cases as well that outraged the public and impacted the Judiciary such as The Jessica Lal case(2010) where the media rejoiced over their efforts in bringing justice to Jessica Lal and the trial court had acquitted the accused of all the charges. The Priyadarshini Mattoo case (2006) where a law student was raped and murdered and the judgment of this case was suspected to have been influenced by Media Trial.
The Bijal Joshi rape case and Nitish Katara murder case gave credits to media where the accused would have gone unpunished if media wouldn’t had intervened. But on the other side media also pinpointed innocent people in the case of Malegaon blast and Maria Susairaj case ignoring the importance of accuracy.
Even Judiciary is not free from faults. Judges and other judicial officers being humans cannot be said to be free from faults either. They can also be “subconsciously influenced” by media trials or media publicity. Therefore, it becomes important to pass regulations with respect to media publicity while a trial is going on or pending.
Freedom of Speech Vs. Media Trials
Freedom of speech i.e. Article 19(1)(a) plays an important role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. Thus, it can be said that freedom of speech is the mother of all other liberties. Complying to the statement Justice Venkataramiah of the Supreme Court in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India (1984)has iterated:
“Freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now presumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education feasible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television or modern communication devices are not still available for all sections of society.” Sometimes where there has been high publicity of court cases, the media has played a crucial role in creating panic among the viewers, making fair trial nearly impossible. There have been grounds why the attention of the media around certain cases is sensationally high. The grounds are:
- Cases could involve children or they could be so barbaric or gruesome that the media considers it mandatory to sensationalize such cases.
- The case could concern a leading celebrity either as a victim or as an accused.
In the cases where leading celebrities are involved, the influence of the media could drastically change the opinion of the "fans" of such influential celebrities. One such case has been Rhea Chakraborty v. State of Bihar, 2020 (Sushant Singh Rajput Death Case) where media had played a crucial role and the accused raised the issue of media trials.
Interplay between Media Trial v. Fair Trial.
At the same time, the "Right to Fair Trial", i.e., a trial uninfluenced by extraneous pressures is acknowledged as a basic tenet of justice in India. Legal provisions aimed at securing the said right is contained under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and under Articles 129 and 215 of Indian Constitution (Contempt Jurisdiction that is; Power of Supreme Court and High Court to punish for Contempt of itself respectively).
The major concern of media are the restrictions that are imposed on the discussion or declaration of matters relating to the merits of a case pending before a Court. A journalist can be held responsible for contempt of Court if he publishes anything which prejudices a ‘fair trial’ that impacts the impartiality of the Court to decide a cause on its merits, irrespective of the nature of the proceeding whether civil or criminal?
Media trials often provokes the atmosphere of mob lynching or influences the perception of general public but it also plays a very crucial role in moulding the mindset of the present generation and does an outstanding job in bringing the criminal on the hook. Although the mob mentality exists independently of the media which merely voices the opinions which the public already has. Media also assists with the problems arising due to the celebrities or corrupt people bribing authorities in order to escape court trials and thereby fearlessly bringing the truth into display in compliance with justice.