This Article is written by VERSHA SINGH (3rd-year law student, pursuing B.A., LL.B (Hons.) from Amity University, Lucknow)
Media is the 4th pillar of our democratic country, and it also plays a prominent role in keeping the other three organs in order. It is the responsibility of the media to report issues that are of public concern. Media plays a prominent role in our society. Media plays a key role in changing the perception of people as it holds the ability to show things from several points of view which further leads to a diverse possibility of opinions and ideologies.
Jeremy Bentham said, “There is no right where there is no attention. Publicity is the essence of justice itself. It is the strongest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against approbation”.
WHAT IS A SOCIAL MEDIA TRIAL?
Social media trial is a phenomenon where the accused is declared as a convict based on vague personal perceptions even before the court has given its judgement. Social media trial leads to various crimes like- cyber defamation. People on virtual platforms portray the accused as guilty not because of the facts, but according to their perception in order to sensationalise the entire incident, this act not only damages the dignity of the accused but also causes questionable hurt to the legal system of the country. Media through such attempts cause interference with the court proceedings and cross all the ethical boundaries. Social media trial has inadequately caused damage to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.
We can name a large number of cases where the media had taken the cases into their hands. They declare the accused as guilty even before the decision of the court. Few such cases are:
- Jessica Lal Case, 2010
- The Priyadarshini Mattoo Case, 2006
- The Bijal Joshi Rape Case, 2005
CONSTITUTIONAL VALIDITY OF MEDIA TRIALS:
Ours is a democratic country where the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are necessary. The basic constitutionality of any media trial clearly depends upon the impact that it leaves on society.
- Freedom of Press
Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India guarantees its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. This fundamental right enables us to hold opinions and express ourselves without any interference.
Irrespective of the freedom granted to the citizens of India, we cannot ignore the fact that it has reasonable restrictions, that is, the freedom is not absolute.
In India, unlike the United States of America, the right to Freedom of the Press is not a separate right. It comes under the ambit of the freedom guaranteed in Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
There have been cases where the Supreme Court has held that despite of the freedom given to the press, they still do not have the authority to interfere with the court proceedings or other matters of the court, and that the media holds no authority to declare a person guilty or innocent. If the media causes hindrance into the matters of court of law, such an act will be held as contempt of court.
- Immunity under Contempt of Courts Act, 1971
According to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, publications under free trials are protected against the contempt proceedings. But in case, any such publication interferes with the court proceedings or other matters of the court will constitute as a contempt of court.
Such acts are held as contempt because they influence the public at large and therefore, can cause hindrance in the right of fair trial of accused and also affects the process of justice that a victim deserves.
In the famous case of Arushi Talwar murder case, it was also seen that even before the court passed any judgement, the media had already declared who was guilty for the murder of Arushi Talwar, the victim. There were mass protests and social media bashing declaring her parents to be guilty of her murder.
- Fair Trial
Both the victim and the accused have the constitutional right of a fair trial in the court of law. The fair trials are conducted by the court of law which are impartial, unbiased and are under no influence. Any act that interferes with the proceedings of the court or other matters related to the court of law, is known as contempt of court.
To prejudice public in favour or against a party (accused or victim) through verbal or written means is held as contempt.
Contempt is held when there is interference in the process of administration of justice and not when a publication publishes something.
With respect to Article 14, Article 20. Article 21 and Article 22 of the Constitution of India, right to a fair trial is the absolute right guaranteed to each citizen within the territorial boundaries of the country.
Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines the offence of defamation. This section of the Indian Penal Code also includes defamation through the electronic means.
Section 469 of the Indian Penal Code defines forgery for the purpose of harming one’s reputation which was further amended by the Information and Technology Act, 2000 in order to add ‘electronic record fabricated’.
In the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court quashed the Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, 2000 because there was a huge confusion in the section’s meaning of the term ‘negative’.
The trials are the process that should only be carried out by the court of law, and the social media trials are nothing but only an interference in the process of delivering of justice.
Social media trial is a term that has been prevalent since the last a cave where people on internet or with the axis of its influence millions of thoughts and as well as broadcast many points of view and opinions across the globe, getting centric attention. Social media trial in current scenario is what we say is direct intrusion in the legal functioning of the Nations. Platforms like Facebook Twitter and Instagram are used for spreading rumours and for passing personal verdicts with a mere perception of an incident which in turn leads to the formation of public opinion at large. This perception created within the minds of people mostly is vague effecting both the victim as well as the accused. These platforms were supposed to be used by people for the spreading of valuable information and putting across opinions and facts which were previously kept inside the walls. The emerging problems with social media trial is that today’s media portals and social networking platforms have completely changed, where in the technical world instead of spreading healthy news is rather busy influencing the minds of the citizens, rather than helping it is doing the opposite and making it worse by each day through the spreading of fake news which is usually done by the paid promotion and other PR agencies. This activity of the media plays an efficient role in moulding public opinion. Social media has become an open court room which tarnishes the image of a person without verifying reliable facts about the accused proving that person may or may not be guilty in the court of law and just imposing their opinion and therefore, causing hinderance in the judicial system.
IMPACT ON SOCIETY AND LEGAL SYSTEM:
Judiciary is that independent part of Democratic-setup which needs to be untouched by any other governmental body because its decision leads to providing justice and fairness to the victim or sufferer without any biasness or undue influence.
Law is that foundation on which any nation’s citizens rely with hope and trust that they will be provided with a chance of fair trial and prove their innocence in the process if they really are and will be proven guilty only by the court of law and not by some media portal or mere combined public opinion. A trial by media is a threat to our judicial system to an unknown extent where accused is held guilty in public eye regardless of any verdict in the court of law, since the last few decades it’s very much evident that since the arrival of television and print media coverage , it keeps sovereignty in curbing perception of public with fake articles, by commenting on members of legal fraternity, the cases related to rape, and murder, sexual harassment, corruption drugs, terrorist activities, acid attack cases, all of these cases have seen huge media interference with their respective trials and killing of their basic human right for them to be free of their charges, prove themselves innocent in the trial.
Media and Judiciary are those two catalysts in people’s life that go hand-in-hand and are complementary to each other- one understands, explores man’s achievements and follies, while other centralizes the legal help required by them if dealt with issues in future or if unwanted problems arise.
Justice Sikri has remarked that outcome of case is negative when people and media already give their verdict of case. Leading a trial and proving the person guilty is the work which is to be performed by the court of law only and not by any other medium or by public or by any social media platform because a person is guilty or not is a matter of work performed by the courts.
MEDIA TRIAL, A CONTEMPT OF COURT?
Yes, media trial is a contempt of court and it should be punishable. There can be a fair trial only when it remains uninfluenced by the media and its sources or other platforms. Cases which go under the media trial before the judgement is passed by the honourable courts, the reputation of the accused is sabotaged. In a democratic setup, every citizen has the right of fair trial, but because of such acts of the media, the democracy gets affected.
Therefore, if in any way any pillars of democracy are being sabotaged by one of them, then they must be liable and the respective act should be held as contempt.
- Re P.C. Sen vs. Unknown, 1968
In the case of Re P.C. Sen vs. Unknown, 1986 a special leave petition was filed stating that a broadcast had been taken place on the night of 25th November, 1965 on a channel of All India Radio Station. In the broadcast, details of the accused were given out which had led to the contempt of court. In this case Justice Shah stated that any act that is done or anything that is published to bring the court to the ambit of contempt or through any activity tries to interfere with the court proceedings will be considered as contempt of court.
- Sushil Sharma vs. The State (Delhi Administrators and Ors.), 1996
In the case of Sunil Sharma vs. The State (Delhi Administrators and Ors.), 1996, it was noticed that there was only a small amount of evidence proving that the accused had murdered his partner. While the case proceedings were pending, the media came into action and started tarnishing the image of the accused by portraying him as a murderer. This led to change of opinions of the public even before the court gave any judgement. With respect to this case, the Delhi High Court held that the conviction of a person is purely based on the facts of the respective case and not on what the media portrays. The court also held that the charges put on a person are based on the evidence and not the vague facts stated by the media.
Whenever we discuss about the restrictions that should be imposed on the media, one thing that must be taken into consideration is that the restrictions imposed should be reasonable and in no way should violate the power and limit of media by a significant amount. Though Article 19 of the Constitution of India provides with the power to express itself, but it also gives reasonable restrictions which are laid down in the Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. Therefore, it becomes the constitutional responsibility of the courts to ensure that no such act should be committed which goes beyond the ambit of the reasonable restrictions mentioned in the Constitution of India.
Since the time of the establishment of the Press Council of India, there has been enough authority in their hands in order to prevent the press from publishing prejudiced news, and it is because of this initiative whenever anything is published which is unconstitutional, leads to contempt. Strict punishments should be imposed who violate the law and cause contempt.
In a democratic country denying freedom of expression is a threat to the democracy itself. There can be no democracy without the existence of a platform to express one’s opinions. The social media plays a prominent role, being the 4th pillar of the democracy, it also has immense power which if misused could cause severe damages.
From the above stated points, it has been made clear that the social media trials have more of the negative impacts as compared to the positive ones.
Judiciary and media go hand-in-hand. It is the constitutional duty of the former to consider latter’s freedom and right to publish the news regarding the court’s proceedings, while the later should also maintain the ethics and not cause any contempt in order to make sure that both the accused and victim undergo a free and fair trial and get the justice or punishment they deserve based only on the facts and evidence of the respective case. Social media can only be allowed the freedom of speech and expression to an extent that it doesn’t falls in the ambit of contempt or prejudice the concept of free and fair trial.
 2013 (82) ACC 303 Dr. Rajesh Talwar And Another V. Central Bureau Of Investigation
 AIR 1970 SC 1821, 1970 CriLJ 1525, 1969 2 SCR 649
 1996 CriLJ 3944