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Media trials: NBSA direction to Aaj Tak, Zee News, News24, ABP News can curb sensationalism

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After the Bombay High Court pulled up the media for being highly polarised in its coverage of the Rajput case, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority directed four channels to air their apologies.

By Abhilash Kumar Singh

The right to fair trial and investigation is part of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India and every citizen enjoys these rights. But these rights are usually hampered now by media trials. It is the basic principle of criminal jurisprudence that “every accused is presumed to be innocent unless the guilt is proved”. However, due to the media trial, the accused person against whom a matter is pending is labelled a criminal even before the final verdict of the court.

This leads to his mental suffering and image assassination.

The most recent case was the sensational death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput wherein it was alleged by the media that the investigating agency mishandled this case of unnatural death. The media aired the entire story in a manner that led the general public to believe what was hypothetically narrated. Such reporting brought undue pressure in the course of fair investigation and trial. The media, therefore, is conducting a parallel investigation and trial.

On October 23, 2020, while listening to a bunch of PILs seeking restraining orders against the trial by the media in this case, a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni of the Bombay High Court observed that journalists today had lost their neutrality and the media had become “highly polarised”.

The Court’s remarks came after the submissions made by Advocate Ankit Lohia, counsel for Zee News, that the channel was not guilty of the allegations made by the petitioners and that there was no need for government interference in the functioning of channels.

“We are ruled by the rule of law. How do you advocate that people who go around accusing others can find shelter of freedom of press? Journalists back then were responsible and neutral, now the media is polarised. This is not a question of regulation. This is a question of checks and balances. People forget where to draw lines. Do it within lines,” responded Justice Datta.

The Bench informed the parties that through the arguments, they were initiating a discussion so that the government could take suggestions and come up with a policy to regulate the electronic media. “We won’t like to stop the media. There are precedents and we are bound by those precedents. But we are dealing with something that is not in precedents, hence we will have to lay down guidelines,” it said.

The Court also asked the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) why no suo motu action could be initiated for “irresponsible coverage” of criminal sensitive matters and “media trial” in the case. Following this, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) directed four Hindi news channels to air their apologies for violating journalistic norms while reporting the death of Rajput. All TV channels incessantly reported this case, with some even blaming his girlfriend Rhea for his death. “Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV and News 24 have been found in violation of journalistic norms,” NBSA said in its order.

Aaj Tak was asked to air an apology on October 27 at 8 pm and to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh for attributing fake tweets to Rajput and reporting them as his last tweets. Zee News too was asked to air a public apology on October 27 at 9 pm for sensationalising the death of Rajput. India TV was told to air its apology on October 27 at 9 pm for showing the body of Rajput. NBSA asked News 24 to air a public apology on October 29 at 9 pm for insensitive and sensational coverage of the case. Another Hindi TV channel, ABP News, was asked by NBSA to comply with the direction to remove objectionable videos of the coverage.

Previously, the centre told the Bombay High Court that it did not support media trials and statutory and self-regulatory guidelines for the print as well as electronic media already exist. It was also submitted that the Supreme Court had accepted the role of the National Broadcasters Association, a private body, as a regulatory authority for TV news channels, and had also held that media freedom should not be interfered with. Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, who appeared for the centre, said that while statutory guidelines already existed for TV news content, it was perhaps required to see if there was anything missing in these guidelines. “We do not seek to justify media trial. All courts have condemned media trial. We accept that position,” Singh said.

It is pertinent to understand that freedom of the press and media are not an absolute freedom and is subject to certain limitations contained in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has rightly held in Harijai Singh and Vijay Kumar’s case that “absolute, unlimited and unfettered freedom of press at all times and in all circumstances would lead to disorder and anarchy”. The media should be careful and adhere to the norms and regulations prescribed by the Press Council of India and also keep in mind the principles of natural justice and fair investigation in any case.

The basic essence of a democratic society lies in free speech, propagating information and knowledge, debating topics and expressing one’s views. Restraining individuals from expressing their views would be an attack on their fundamental right to express and speak. However, the media should restrain itself from forming an opinion by conducting its own parallel investigation and trial. Furthermore, the reporting of the alleged suicide of the actor by some newspapers was a violation of the norms formulated by the Council for reporting on suicide. The norms prohibit publishing stories about suicide prominently and advise the media not to unduly repeat such stories.

In cases of trial by the media, justice is often not only denied, but also derailed by reducing a tragedy into a sensational drama. The media is the cornerstone of Indian democracy, but the legal process should not be hindered by media coverage of a matter. The prime function of the media is to provide information by highlighting the truth and facts. Not only this, the media is a watchdog keeping continuous check over the workings of the government too. But it should keep its transparency because people have blind faith in it. But in the case of a trial by the media, most stories are motivated and half-baked to add spice and gain TRPs. As a result, it not only violates the rights of an individual, but also creates panic in society.

The media should accept certain ethics or codes voluntarily so that it sticks to fairness, accuracy and unbiasedness. If it makes an error regarding any report, it must have the moral courage and ethics to correct it and publish it. It must also take care of public interest in the time of communication. It should not violate the code of conduct or jurisdiction of the court.

Read Also: Kerala Police Act bells social media misuse, cyber crime

Thus, the media should always keep in mind that prejudice will not only affect public opinion, but also can hamper fair trial in court.

—The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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