Recently, the Delhi High Court directed that “all media houses ought to exercise restraint while reporting on matters which are still under investigation by any statutory authority”.
Justice Rekha Palli gave this order while hearing a petition by Arjun Jain, an ex-director in M/s Namascray Experience Pvt. Ltd, which had entered into an Onboard Entertainment Services Agreement with the operator, Waterways Leisure Tourism Pvt. Ltd. to conduct and manage entertainment shows onboard
“Empress Cruise Ship” chartered by Cordelia Cruise. The Cruise was raided by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) on October 2, which seized contraband and arrested Aryan Khan, son of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, amongst other accused.
Jain was aggrieved by the coverage of India Today News Network pertaining to the raid, which had insinuated that he was the mastermind who had organised the event. He argued that even though he was neither a director nor an associate director in M/s Namascray Experience Pvt, India Today News Network had broadcasted and published news on its channels and digital platforms which purportedly showed him as an associate director of the company.
Furthermore, Jain had been projected by the Network as having previous criminal antecedents, and by way of direct and indirect innuendoes linked him to the alleged seizure of drugs. This, he alleged, had impinged on his right to privacy and also prejudiced the minds of the investigating agency.
In his petition, Jain sought directions for rules to be set up regarding an emergency efficacious grievance redressal system for reportage in criminal investigations and trials and direction to India Today News Network to remove all links and reportages in relation to him.
News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority, an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association, is tasked with the job of considering and adjudicating complaints about broadcasts. Advocate Nisha Bhambani, appearing on the behalf of the Authority, had submitted that effective guidelines by way of News Broadcasting Standards Regulation and the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards which encompassed a wide range of principles to self-regulate news broadcasting, were already in place.
ASG Chetan Sharma, appearing on behalf of the centre, backed Bhambani to state that they have already framed rules to ensure that not only is reporting done in a responsible manner but that no prejudice is caused to citizens in respect of any ongoing investigation against them.
Even though the centre has felt that there is no need for reforms by legislation, time and again the courts have found the conduct of the media sensationalist, encouraging biased or emotionally loaded impressions of events rather than neutrality, hence causing manipulation. There have been three other cases where the courts reprimanded the media—Devangana Kalita case, Disha Ravi case and the Sushant Singh Rajput case.
In 2020, Devangana Kalita, a former MPhil student from JNU, garnered national attention when she took part in anti-CAA and NRC protests at Delhi. Following this, she was arrested in May 2020 and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Kalita moved the Delhi High Court against a Delhi Police press note which publicised information on allegations and evidence allegedly collected against her. A single-judge bench of Justice Vibhu Bakhru held: “The same (using media to influence public opinion) is not only likely to subvert the fairness of the investigation but would also have the propensity to destroy or weaken the presumption of innocence, which must be maintained in favour of the accused till he/she is found guilty after a fair trial.”
The Court said that though there could not be a blanket ban on the Delhi Police which prevented them from disclosing any information regarding a pending case, it had to be seen from the facts of each case whether the information disclosed by the police had the “propensity to prejudicially affect fair trial”. The Court further stated: “This is not only because such actions may prejudicially affect a fair trial but also because it may, in some cases, have the effect of stripping the person involved of his/her dignity or subjecting him/or her to avoidable ignominy.” It directed the Delhi Police to “not issue any further communication naming any accused or any witness till the charges, if any, are framed and the trial is commenced”.
Coming to Disha A Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, she was arrested in connection with a toolkit on the farmers’ protest that was tweeted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She approached the Delhi High Court seeking directions to restrain the Delhi Police from leaking any investigation material relating to the case filed against her by the special cell. The plea sought action against three news channels for violating Ravi’s right to fair trial and privacy and sought take-down and restraining orders against them. The channels were Times Now, India Today and News18.
The High Court in an order on February 19 directed the Delhi Police to not violate the guidelines issued by home ministry and to refrain from “rushing to the press with half-baked, speculative or unconfirmed information about ongoing investigations”. It furthermore directed “media houses to ensure that the telecast/broadcast by them is from verified/ authenticated sources” and all content “shall be in strict adherence to the ‘Programme Code’ as contained in the Cable Television Networks Rules 1994 as also the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards prescribed by the News Broadcasters Association”.
The Court directed the Delhi Police: “If the charge-sheet is filed in the meantime and the same is made public, once the investigation reaches some conclusion, dissemination of the contents of the charge-sheet would not be interdicted in any manner.” Justice Prathiba M Singh stated: “While a journalist cannot be asked to reveal the source, it would have to be ensured that the source ought to be a verified and authentic source and the content ought not to be merely speculative or conjectural.” And in view of the recent coverage, the Court said that it was “sensationalism” and “prejudicial journalism”.
In the aftermath of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June 2020, the Bombay High Court in batch of PILs filed by former police officers, activists, lawyers and NGOs from Maharashtra said that “media trials” obstruct investigation and administration of justice. The pleas had sought to restrain the media from reporting on the actor’s death. A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni had stated that the conduct of channels such as Times Now and Republic TV in covering this case prima facie amounted to criminal contempt, but refrained from taking action against them.
The Court also said: “While covering a suicide case, media houses should avoid reconstruction of crime scenes, interviews with potential witness, leaking sensitive and confidential information or to suggest that the person was of weak character.” It directed the media to not “print photographs of an accused and thereby facilitating his identification; Criticize the investigative agency based on half-baked information without proper research; Pronounce on the merits of the case, including pre-judging the guilt or innocence qua an accused or an individual not yet wanted in a case, as the case may be, Recreate/reconstruct a crime scene and depicting how the accused committed the crime; Predict the proposed/further course of action including steps that ought to be taken in a particular direction to complete the investigation; and Leaking sensitive and confidential information from materials collected by the investigating agency”.
The Court further directed that the guidelines issued for print and electronic media by the Press Council of India for reporting cases of death and suicide would be applicable to the electronic media as well.
—By Shashank Rai and India Legal News Service