Trial by Media: A Legal Perspective
Written by: Ms Shalini Gupta
The free press which is neither directed by the executive nor subjected to censorship is a vital element in a free State, in particular, a free, regularly published, political press is essential in a modern democracy. Democracy can thrive under the care and guidance of public opinion and media is the vehicle through which an opinion can be articulate. Freedom of the press is not limited to newspapers only. The liberty of the press is implicit in the freedom of speech and expression given under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.
Trial by media before or after the judgement of the Court has become a fashion these days to increase the TRP of their news channel. The trial is a process that is generally carried out by the Court and not by the media. Sometimes media acts as a court and tries to blame a person without giving him a chance to speak for himself or without any proof. Media also distort the facts to make it interesting just to grab the viewers.
Freedom of Press
It is true that through media many victims had got the justice as in Jessica Lal Murder case but it has also declared the person as an accused without any proof as in Aarushi Talwar’s murder case, the media declared their parents as accused. It is totally an illegitimate use of freedom of speech and expression. The former chief justice said that the Supreme Court would draw the line on how much information should be given to the media about the case investigation by the police so the media are not able to do the trial.
Freedom of Press is considered as the heart of social and political intercourse in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd. v. Union of India. In the Muzaffarpur Shelter home case, it was said by the Honourable Supreme Court that the Press should draw a line and strike a balance as media trials of cases can’t be allowed. Under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, if any action is published by media which interferes with the proceedings of the trial of the Court, then it will constitute contempt of court.
One of the fundamental principles of a fair trial is Audi alteram partem which means no man should be condemned unheard. He should be given a chance to speak for himself. The principle is followed in the Court of law but during the media trial, the media does not listen to the person on whom the claim has been put. A fair trial also means a public hearing by a competent tribunal or court established by law.
We are living in the era of paid and fake news where stories are created but it can also be not deniable that the free press plays an important role as a watchdog in a democratic country. Sometimes media has a negative influence and the viewers trust them easily without thinking once.
Therefore, it is important that media should be regulated by the Courts and no such information should be given to the media which is false or incomplete as we know that incomplete truth is more dangerous than the whole truth. The procedure of the trial should not be arbitrary, unfair or unreasonable. Every citizen of India has equal rights as per Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
There is a doctrine of presumption of innocence that is given to all the accused until proven guilty. It means that every accused should be presumed innocent unless all the proofs are against him. In Anukul Chandra Pradhan v. Union of India, The Supreme Court states that the presumption is legal in nature. This doctrine should not be misused through the media trial especially when the investigation is pending.
In every case, the accused should be given police protection from media trials as the accused is also having the right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India which states that every citizen of India has a right to life. Right to life has a very expanded scope. Right to life includes right to health, right to food, right to livelihood, right to live peacefully, right of prisoners and protection of women and children.
Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 8(2) of American Convention on Human Rights states the same thing that every accused who is charged with any offence should be proved innocent until proven guilty according to law.  Therefore, not only in India but in other countries also, the principle of presumption of innocence is followed.
In Francis Coralie vs Union of India, it was held that the right to life is not restricted to a mere animal existence. It means something more than just physical survival. It also includes living with human dignity. Therefore, the accused should not be held guilty before being proven guilty and should be given his rights. Then only he will have a fair trial. A fair trial has been made to protect individuals from false cases, unlawful and arbitrary curtailment or deprivation of their basic rights and freedoms.
The impact of the media trial can prove to be very dangerous for the accused as well as for the victim. Media trials without listening to the accused can manipulate the thinking ability of the society and as a result, society can pressurize the court of law to punish the accused without knowing the whole truth. Therefore, it has a negative impact on society. The Supreme Court has to put restrictions on the media so that they cannot try to influence the people of the society against the accused. It is the procedure of the court to punish the guilty and not the procedure of the media.
 Samanwaya Rautray, SC hints at end to ‘media trial’, THE ECONOMIC TIMES (Feb 08, 2017, 12:51 AM), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/supreme-court-hints-at-end-to-media-trial/articleshow/57028827.cms.
 (1985) 1 SCC 641.
 PTI, Muzaffarpur shelter case: Media trial of cases can’t be allowed; press needs to draw a line, says SC, THE INDIAN EXPRESS (Sept. 11, 2018, 6:39:23 pm), https://indianexpress.com/article/india/muzaffarpur-shelter-case-media-trial-of-cases-cant-be-allowed-press-needs-to-draw-a-line-supreme-court-5351105/.
 (1996) 6 SCC 354.
 Debmalya Banerjee, Supreme Court of India on trial by media, MONDAQ(Nov 18, 2020), https://www.mondaq.com/india/trials-appeals-compensation/1006762/supreme-court-of-india-on-trial-by-media.
 Neeraj Tiwari, fair trial vis-à-vis criminal justice administration: A critical study of Indian Criminal justice system, ACADEMICJOURNALS(Mar 1, 2010), https://academicjournals.org/article/article1379856371_Tiwari.pdf.
 1981 AIR 746, 1981 SCR (2) 516.
 Supra note 6.