It is said that it is better to acquit ten guilty persons than convicting one innocent person. In India, the criminal justice system is based on the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The criminal procedure lays down exhaustive rules for protecting the rights and dignity of the victims. The accused also enjoys the right to remain silent and cannot be compelled to reply as envisaged under article 14, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and The Constitution of India. However, it is often found that the press encroaches in the functional area of judiciary and thereby limits the assured rights of the accused. The present article deals with the following questions:
- Role of Media in vilification of the accused?
- Is the accused punished by condemnation before conclusion of trial?
- Are the critics controlling the mind of public by providing selective and colored information?
- Will not encroachment of journalism into the realm of judiciary cause fall of democracy?
- Position of the accused if not proven guilty after the trial?
Keywords: Press trial, Rights of accused, Defamation, Journalism ethics.
The criminal jurisprudence is based on the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty and it shall be the duty of petitioner to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused has committed the impugned offence. Section 101 of The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 states that the burden of proving a fact shall always lie on the person who asserts or produces the facts. It is expressly stated that any person who wants the court to give judgment as to the existence of rights and liability shall have the burden of proof to establish the existence of such rights and liabilities. The principles of UDHR (Universal declaration of Human Rights) contemplates that every individual shall be recognized by law and a person shall have right to a fair hearing in an unbiased trial in order to determine the actual matter in controversy under article 6 of UDHR. Thus, it can be clearly contemplated that giving a fair chance to the accused to be heard (Audi alteram partem) is based on the Fundamental principles of Human Rights. It is the prosecution who opens the case and thereafter the court frames the issues if it is satisfied that the offence could have been committed by the accused. The role of the prosecution does not end here; the prosecution’s witness is examined by the court and if it is well established beyond reasonable doubt that accused could have committed the offence, and then the accused shall furnish defenses as against the allegations of the plaintiff. Act of animadversion of the accused during the pendency of the trial blatantly violates the basic principles of Human Rights as enunciated under Universal Declaration of Human Right– Right to a dignified life, right against discrimination, right to be heard, right to a fair trial and right against arbitrary interference with privacy.
Defying the Ethics of Journalism and Vilification of Accused
The Press Council of India formed under The Press Council Act, 1978, on receiving any complaint or believing that any News agency has violated the basic ethics of Journalism and public taste, may censure such News agency after recording the reasons. The primary object of Journalism is to provide the people with views, information and news. The aim of the journalism is to accentuate accurate, unbiased facts in a decent manner. Public shall form their own opinions based on the provided facts applying their cognition; but when the journalist gives conclusive verdict over a matter, the public insight is constrained and thereby their right to know, which is a tenant of right to freedom of speech and expression is restricted. The press council of India has published the Norms of Journalistic conduct, 2011 thereby imposes duty on the news agency to eschew any defamatory statements and it is clearly contemplated that truth is no defense against an individual where no public interest is involved. The Norms of Journalistic conduct, 2011 has also mentioned the importance of pre-publication verification. Right to privacy shall not be intruded unless the instance has overriding public interest, but special care has to be taken while condemning a woman. It is clearly evident that a press trial shall hamper the actual trial because media trial may lead to tampering of evidences, threatening of witnesses and absconding of witnesses. In a democratic form of government, the supreme authority is vested with the people, and they shall have the right to acquire true and genuine information as to the happening of any matter which is in the hand of public authority or functioning of any public authority by virtue of their right to know or to be informed as enunciated under section 6 of Right to Information Act, 2005by applying to the information officer under section5. Thus, any News agency shall always have the right to acquire the exact information from the actual authority and need not give verdict based on any vague assumptions. Hence, misinformation or one-sided information should not be spread as it would violate the right to information of the public at large.
Construing the Public Opinion and Causing Limited Perception
In the era of digitalization, where people’s lifestyle is very fast, the basic human instinct is to obtain a ready-made thing, be it a fully furnished flat, a tailored piece of suit, etc. So standing in such a crisis, majority is reluctant to apply its mind as to the happening of an issue in the society, and they try to pick up opinions from good orators or public speakers. The act of picking opinions from others causes selective perception, as we fail to form our own insight by applying our rationale, unbiased mind, and analyzing the issue by considering the information one possesses or can be gathered byconducting a basic literature review. When one is picking up opinion from another person, either they do not ask for the corroborative evidences for enunciating such opinion or fail to check the credibility of the material facts based on which such person has formed such opinion. Thus, public can be a victim of colored and selective information being spread by media, violating the ethics of journalism. In Dhananjay Chaterjee v.State of West Bengal, mass agitation arose against the accused for raping and murdering the deceased, who was a minor girl, and the convict was punished to a death sentence. But controversy aroused against the mass hysteria caused by the media trial which speeded up the trial and was terminated early and some critics believed that the offence of the accused was not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Disruption of Democracy by Encroachment into the Function of Judicature
Freedom of press and prevention of censorship of media come under the realm of Right to freedom of speech and expression embraced under article 19(1). The press has no special right which is not guaranteed to an individual at large. The right to freedom of expression is subjected to certain restrictions. In the Priyadarshini Matoo murder case, the news agency questioned the efficiency of Judiciary through polls from public at large claiming that the role of media is significant in getting a speedy Redressal of the case. In State of Maharashtra v. Rajendra Jawanmal Gandhi, the apex court has expressed its dissatisfaction with the act of media trial. The court has stated that inference of media in the functioning of judiciary would amount to defeat of administration of justice and would be a contempt of court. The Supreme Court and High Court shall have power to punish any person for contempt of court. Any act of interference in the administration of justice shall be termed as criminal contempt under section2(c) of The Contempt of Court Act, 1971 and any person committing contempt of court shall be punished with an imprisonment extending up to six months and with fine of two thousand rupees or both. Press is one of the four pillars of democracy and has a very significant role in ensuring the participation of the people in administration of state thereby embracing the essence of preamble of The Constitution of India. In Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras the apex court ensured the right to circulation, publication and to form ideas as a part of the right to freedom of speech and expression but the media shall always give verdict after due diligence. Thus, media may represent the collective rights of majority of the society but it should have no right to infringe or limit the individual right of the accused and doing so would cause fall of the democratic structure.
In the alleged suicide case of famous Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, the prime accused actress Rhea Chakraborty and her family is being subjected to strong condemnation by the media and even several WhatsApp conversations of the accused and victim are often disclosed. The act of condemnation of the accused based on certain hypothesis is against the fundamental principles of criminal justice system. The evidentiary value of the disclosed WhatsApp conversations shall only be decided by the court with expert opinions under section45A of The Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Thereby such acts sacrifice the basic human rights of an individual to have a fair trial and the accused is punished before conclusion of the trial which is very disrespectful for the judicial machinery. Taking reference from Shena Bora, Jessica, and Priyadarshini Murder case where media trial had rightly disclosed the actual matter in controversies, it would be significant to conclude that the media should present the matter in controversies to the public at large without giving a final verdict on the fate of the case. They must be a neutral observant of the progress of the case without compromising its right to freedom of speech and expression. It shall be the responsibility of the media to present the matter in controversy in a wholesome way without focusing on the particular aspect of the case and imposing their opinions to the public at large. If the media considers the matter in dispute from several aspects, it would disclose new dimensions and unattended contentions of the case. Media plays a pivotal role in a democratic form of governance and is considered as one of the four pillars of democracy, thereby the media shall not limit its functioning by indulging into the act of animadversion of accused and contemplating a conclusive verdict of the matter in dispute encroaching into the realm of judicature. Media should be capable of distinguishing between fact and opinions. The media shall serve the unbiased, true, non-vexatious facts to the society which would aid in shaping the opinion of the public rather than imposing opinion to the public at large.
Author: Sneha Maji, Amity Law School, Noida