Trial by Media

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Chapter I
The subject of ‘Trial by Media’ is discussed by civil rights activists, Constitutional lawyers, judges and academics almost every day in recent times. With the coming into being of the television and cable-channels, the amount of publicity which any crime or suspect or accused gets in the media has reached alarming proportions. Innocents may be condemned for no reason or those who are guilty may not get a fair trial or may get a higher sentence after trial than they deserved. There appears to be very little restraint in the media in so far as the administration of criminal justice is concerned.

We are aware that in a democratic country like ours, freedom of expression is an important right but such aright is not absolute in as much as the Constitution itself, while it grants the freedom under Article 19(1)(a), permitted the legislature to impose reasonable restriction on the right, in the interests of various matters, one of which is the fair administration of justice as protected by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

If media exercises an unrestricted or rather unregulated freedom in publishing information about a criminal case and prejudices the mind of the public and those who are to adjudicate on the guilt of the accused and if it projects a suspect or an accused as if he has already been adjudged guilty well before the trial in court, there can be serious prejudice to the accused. In fact, even if ultimately the person is acquitted after the due process in courts, such an acquittal may not help the accused to rebuild his lost image in society. If excessive publicity in the media about a suspect or an accused before trial prejudices a fair trial or results in characterizing him as a person who had indeed committed the crime, it amounts to undue interference with the “administration of justice”, calling for proceedings for contempt of court against the media. Other issues about the privacy rights of individuals or defendants may also arise. Public figures, with slender rights against defamation are more in danger and more vulnerable in the hands of the media. after the judgment in R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu :AIR 1995 SC 264.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion received a submission from the British Irish Watch against a very sustained attack by the press on Mrs. Bernadette and Mr. Michael McKevitt who had been advocating national sovereignty for Ireland and who were claiming the Irish people’s right to self-determination through a Committee. It was the media which started linking these two persons to the Omagh bombing of 15th August,1998 which killed 29 people. The media attack started even before the police questioned these two persons. The contents of the representation to the U.N.Rapporteur by the British Irish Watch quoted below, fits well into what is happening with the media in our own country. The representation stated:

“Guilt by association is an invidious device. In the case of Bernadette and Michael McKevitt, the media have created a situation where almost no one in Ireland is prepared to countenance the possibility that they may be innocent, notwithstanding the fact that neither of them has even been questioned by the police in connection with the Omagh bombing. They have demonized, … … … such media campaigns are self-defeating. If the media repeatedly accuses people of crimes without producing any evidence against them, they create such certainty of their guilt in the minds of the public that, if these persons are even actually charged and tried, they have no hope of obtaining a fair trial. When such trials collapse, the victims of the crime are left without redress. Equally, defendants may be acquitted but they have lost their good name”. (see The Blanket, Journal of Protest and Dissent, November 2000).

The observations of Mr. Andrew Belsey in his article ‘Journalism and Ethics, can they co-exist’ (published in Media Ethics : A...
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