The 19th-century writer Thomas Carlyle called the press as the “fourth estate of the realm”, by which he meant that it acted as a watchdog for the government and was a vital part of a democracy. The media has always held a revolutionary and influential role in society.
There is no express mention of Freedom of media in Part III of the Indian Constitution but the rights related to “freedom of speech and expression” that any citizen can exercise in their capacity can be extrapolated to the media as well. It was held in Ramesh Thappar v. State of Madras that the freedom of speech and the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations. Thereafter, the freedom of the press had begun to be widely enforced and acknowledged. Since Freedom of Speech under Article 19(1) (a) is applicable to the media, the restrictions expressed in the Article are also valid on the said organisations.
It is generally accepted that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are is importance for the “three D’s”: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. However, the limitations to this can also be described in “three D’s”: Defamatory, Derogatory, and Discriminatory.
Presently, the media houses have been actively participating in pronouncing verdicts in cases even before the courts take up cognisance of the matter. The phenomenon of creating a perception of the accused being guilty or innocent by the media before actually being proven guilty is called media trials. The media has shown a degree of irreverence for the accused, the legal system and the public in general and has lost all objectivity in differentiating between an accused and a convict. This disrespect, however arises from the greed for TRP, something which is bragged by a majority of news channel claiming to be the most viewed in the country. With the growth of paid news environment and TRP, media is drastically losing its credibility. Today, with the rise of crony capitalism, taking money or favours from the government, ruling parties, and corporate houses has become a common practice and ethics of journalism have dwindled. We can see how entire media houses have started aligning themselves to political parties for undeserved profits or survival this type of journalism is adulterated and cannot be considered a public service.
Let us go through a recent event that might have caught your attention. On 14th June, a Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput allegedly committed suicide in his Mumbai apartment. After which, his father filed a case against his girlfriend and co-actor Rhea Chakraborty accusing her of abetment to suicide and fraud. Ever since then, the witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty by the media has continued. There is no credible evidence to suggest that she was involved in any of the crimes, of which she has been accused, but the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED), Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and the MEDIA, have been relentlessly investigating her. Is it because she had something to do with her boyfriend’s death or is it because she is a woman who decided to live her life in a way that does not fit the patriarchal norms? The media and the masses have hunted her, fed on each of her life-choices. The witch hunt of political activists, dissenters and women is not a new phenomenon in India. With social media platforms being more active than ever, the task has become easier and more efficient. The media has already created a perception of her guilt in the eyes of the public and are now targeting the Hindi film industry (Bollywood) and tainting its image by personally attacking actors for drug abuse and creating a generalised conception about the industry.
Why are Media trials problematic?
Now, these issues may not seem insidious to a person of normal prudence but in reality, these acts are a hindrance in the way of a fair trial, which is the fundamental right of the accused under Article 21 of the Constitution. In Rattiaram v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the courts had observed that the fair trial is the heart of criminal jurisprudence. A fair trial is a fundamental right which flows from Article 21 of the Constitution. Denial of the fair trial is the denial of human rights.
The second principle that is often disturbed by media trials is the presumption of innocence. Article 11(1) of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reads ‘Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.’ When the media creates a perception about a person that is strong enough to dilute the truth, the person’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is violated. One may argue that the public opinion in such cases does not matter and holds no credibility in the eyes of law, but it does nullify the effect of the decree of the court of law and takes a toll on personal dignity which is a part of the right to life.
But from this how can we construe that media houses are politically inclined? The fact is that our country is going through some major social, economic and political changes. Despite it being the media’s responsibility to highlight issues that directly affect people’s lives, it chooses to over-stream news that is less fact-based and heavier on the entertaining side. A large part of the investments made in media corporations is done by businesses and members of political parties or the incumbent government who wish to show themselves in a good light. These investors persuade the media channels to refrain from criticising them. While there is no illegality in receiving funds from capitalists or advertise for a political party; such monetary benefits tend to weigh on the issues covered by the media and hence this capitalist-politics-media nexus taints the ethics of fair journalism. The prime example of this is visible too in the contemporary situation where the country is facing a pandemic, severe economic slowdown, high unemployment and border stand-offs with neighbouring countries and the media shamelessly decides to prioritise contentious content over real content.
Cases where media trials were a boon
The positive impact of media trials when carried out without bias and with a certain code of ethics is unfathomable. In the infamous Jessica Lal murder case, the media played a vital role in delivering justice to the victim and her family. In a case which would have otherwise suppressed as it involved high profile businesspersons, celebrities and fashion designers, the media coverage led to a public outcry which strong-armed the investigating agencies and the administration to take up serious cognisance of the case. The finest example of the positive impact of media trials was visible in the Nirbhaya gang-rape case in 2012, where persistent pressure from the media and public led to reform in the juvenile justice system and amendments were made to Indian Penal Code to encompass crimes against women and the quantum of punishment was increased.
The key responsibility of the media is to the uphold truth, integrity and be socially responsible. The social responsibility here refers to integrating the society, fostering peace among communities and following law and ethics of journalism. However, media has been deviating from such responsibility and has made journalism a money-minting business. It is depriving the masses of the information that can be trusted and the media lacks veracity. What we can observe from the situation today is that the higher the TRP of the media house, higher the number of defamation cases against it. This article is an attempt to spread awareness on the fact that the ambivalent and devious behaviour of the media is affecting the opinion of the masses by concealing or tampering the truth.
“The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power, because they control the minds of the masses.”
- Malcolm X
AUTHOR(S): Vidushi Sharma and Omkar Apugol
1. Rattiaram v. State of Madhya Pradesh, (2012) 4 SCC 516
2. UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), < https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/>.
3. R. Jagannathan, “Rise of crony journalism and tainted money in media”, (December 20, 2014), First Post, <https://www.firstpost.com/business/deccan-chronicle-rise-of-crony-journalism-and-tainted-money-449735.html>