Observing that it is now time that some corrective action is taken, lest judicial independence remains only on paper and right-thinking people start losing faith in the justice delivery system, the Bombay High Court on Friday held that conducting a 'media trial' interferes with the administration of justice. The HC further held that any news report, which is presumed 'to cause prejudice to mankind' and affect a fair investigation, as well as a fair trial, can attract contempt of court.
The HC has also issued a slew of guidelines for the TV and print media to follow while covering a suicidal death case, wherein the most significant is that the media must avoid character assassination of the accused person and also avoid pronouncing 'guilt and innocence' of the accused. It also said that the media must not show the deceased as one of a 'weak character.'
The guidelines further mandate that the media should avoid publishing photographs of the deceased, avoid interviewing victim's family or the vital witnesses in the case, recreating the crime scene, leak confidential/sensational information, criticise the probe agency of 'half-baked' information.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni said that the right to free speech is one of the most abused rights in recent times. “It is a reminder of what has at times been the unsavoury past of the media in India crossing the proverbial ‘Lakshman Rekha’. Any report of the media, having the propensity of tilting the balance against fair and impartial administration of justice, could make a mockery of the justice delivery system rendering ‘truth’ a casualty.”
“The duty of the media to have news items printed or telecast based on true and correct version relating to incidents worth reporting accurately and without any distortion and embellishment as well as without taking sides, cannot, therefore, be overemphasized,” the judges said.
While pulling up Republic TV and Times Now channels, the bench held the guidelines of the Press Council of India (PCI) must be followed not only by the print but even by the TV channels.
The bench while referring to the reportage of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, held that the Republic TV and Times Now, particularly took upon themselves “the role of the investigator, the prosecutor as well as the judge and delivered the verdict as if, during the pandemic, except they all organs of the State were in slumber.”
“While we need not repeat here what Mumbai Police was accused of by these TV channels, judicial notice may be taken that the actress (Rhea Chakraborty) although entitled to her rights to life and equal protection of the laws was painted as the villain of the piece, had the rug below the presumption of innocence removed, and received the media’s verdict that she is guilty of orchestrating the actor’s murder, much before the filing of a police report,” the bench said.
“Even if the contents of the reports and debates are considered to be mere insinuations and aspersions against Mumbai Police and the actress, they lack bona fides, are aimed at interfering with and obstructing the administration of justice. In our opinion, reportage by these TV channels on the death of the actor is prima facie, contemptuous,” the judges held.
The bench while criticising the two channels said that while in the process to out-smart each other, they started a “vicious campaign of masquerading as the crusaders of truth and justice and the saviours of the situation thereby exposing, what in their perception, Mumbai Police had suppressed, caring less for the rights of other stakeholders and throwing the commands of the Cr.P.C. and all sense of propriety to the winds.”
“It amuses us not a little that Republic TV doffed its own hat, in appreciation of what its team had achieved, without realizing that it could be irking and invite adverse comments,” the 251-page judgment stated.
The judges further noted that the Supreme Court while transferring probe to the CBI had specifically said that the Mumbai Police 'did its job' and despite such an order, coverage on Sushant's death “flowed thick and fast from these TV channels in brazen disregard of the rule of law, the edifice on which the country’s Constitution rests.”
The bench in its bulky judgment while declaring that “the criticism to Mumbai Police for its probe in the SSR case was unfair” said that “the investigative agencies are entitled to maintain secrecy while probing the case and are under no obligation to divulge materials thus collected.”