The Bombay High Court on Monday issued guidelines for press reporting in response to the "media trial" that followed in the wake of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death. The high court's verdict came on a batch of PILs that sought the postponement of "media trials" and sought "guidelines" for crime reporters.
The Mumbai police had prima facie ruled Rajput's death in June 2020 as a suicide. Since Rajput's death, media channels—especially Times Now, Republic, The India Today Group, News 18, NDTV and Zee News—have run a sustained coverage of the news on this issue. The nonstop coverage also triggered a surge in disinformation on social media with a number of 'Justice for Sushant Singh' groups cropping up online that vilified Rajput's girlfriend actor Rhea Chakraborty.
The high court observed that any publication or act interfering with or tending to interfere with/obstructing the "administration of justice" could amount to contempt of court. Significantly, the high court also agreed with the petitioners' contention that the Centre had abdicated its duty to rein in erring channels and make them comply with its own regulations in the media coverage in Rajput's death.
"No decisions were taken in regard to the complaints which were received," the high court observed. A clear statutory regime which has been prescribed cannot be rendered futile and/or totally ineffective by an approach to refer the complaint to the self-regulatory authority," the court said while directing the Centre to deal with every complaint it receives in regard to violation of the Programme Code.
The high court pulled up Republic TV and Times Now for its reporting which it found to be prima facie contemptuous and could attract penal provisions under the Contempt of Court Act. The high court, however, chose not to initiate action against the two erring electronic channels. The court said the campaign against Mumbai Police of having suppressed facts appeared to be ill-founded in view of Supreme Court's August 19, 2020 order which did not find any wrongdoing by Mumbai Police.
In its detailed verdict, the division bench led by Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and Justice Girish Kulkarni defined what a media trial is and issued detailed guidelines for the media to follow while reporting on cases of death by suicide.
What is a trial by media?
Drawing inspiration from the definition of 'trial by media' in Supreme Court's xx R.K. Anand verdict, the high court concluded that a trial by media is "the impact of the press/media coverage on the reputation of the person targeted as an accused must be such that it is sufficient to create a widespread perception of his guilt, prior to pronouncement of verdict by the court, thus making him the subject of intense public scrutiny for the rest of his life."
The court then ruled that a media trial on pending matters thus fall within the restrictions as contained in the Programme Code.
The high court observed that "given the circumstance that the press/media has the ability to mould the opinion of the society by publicity of certain facets of an investigative process, which could give rise to strong public emotions and prejudice the case of one party or the other, it (media) ought to refrain from taking stances in its presentations which are biased and show a predilection for a particular point of view having enormous potential of deflecting the course of justice."
To this effect, the high court junked Republic TV's argument that its investigation brought facts to the forefront which were allegedly overlooked by the Mumbai police. "To our mind, the contention proceeds on a clear misunderstanding of the provisions of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure)," the bench said.
"If indeed the channel (Republic TV) is in possession of information that could assist the investigator, it ought not to be part of a news coverage but it would be the duty of such channel to provide the information that it has to the police…," the court said.
"The procedure for depriving a person of his right to life has to be eminently just, fair and reasonable but deprivation sought to be effected by 'media trial' or 'parallel investigation' by the media is not a procedure that has any legal sanctity," the bench said. "In such cases, the Court said it has to step in to protect the rights of those who are found to be in jeopardy because of State "apathy" or indifference "to check programmes of media houses which tend to offend Article 21 rights."
Does the regime of self-regulation adopted by the news channels has any sanctity within the statutory framework?
The court found that the self-regulatory mechanism adopted by the news channels does not have the character of a statutory mechanism. In the absence of the Centre's acceptance of the self-regulatory mechanism to be a conclusive mechanism, it does "not have any statutory recognition".
"These are the bodies formed by private channels. There is no control whatsoever on the functioning of these bodies by the Central Government or any other statutory agencies," the court said. The penalties as prescribed by these private bodies do not act as a "deterrent" in cases of media excesses or irresponsible reporting of the nature complained of by the petitioners, the court observed.
Media must follow guidelines for reporting on death by suicide cases
In absence of guidelines framed by a statutory authority in reporting on cases of death by suicide, the high court held that all media reporting must follow guidelines issued by the Press Council of India (PCI) on this issue.
"Since none can possibly dispute that the dead should also be treated with dignity, particularly those who die by suicide for varying reasons which are personal to the deceased, we wish to observe and hold that the guidelines issued by the PCI are comprehensive and reasonable enough commending itself to be followed in letter and spirit by the print media as well as the electronic media appropriate guidelines are framed, observed above," the court said.
Few TV channels indulged in "crude, indecent and distasteful news reporting"
A few TV channels indulged in "crude, indecent and distasteful news reporting" of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death, the court said. "A person cannot be dehumanized, disreputed, vilified and maligned qua his societal existence at the hands of the media in an attempt to sensationalize any crime which is under investigation. We do not see how in a civilized society such rights so personal can in any manner be tinkered with and/or attacked by any media in the garb and label of its free speech and expression, so as to nullify a right to a free and fair trial," the court said.
"These TV channels 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," the court observed.
In an attempt to "out-smart each other" while reporting on the Rajput's death, Republic TV and Times Now "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."
Freedom of Speech bulwark of a democratic government
Misuse of the right to freedom of speech for "inappropriate reasons has not gone unnoticed," the court said. It appears that the rights guaranteed under the fundamental right to speech have been the "most abused right in recent times". "It is a reminder of what has at times been the unsavoury past of the press/media in India crossing the proverbial 'Lakshman Rekha'," the court observed.
Notwithstanding that freedom of speech is the bulwark of a democratic government, the media "must remember that its concern for discovery of truth and maintenance of purity in all streams of good governance by opening up channels of free discussion of issues should stop short of exceeding the permissible legal and Constitutional means."
"Since here we are majorly concerned with "administration of justice", any report of press/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 court said. "The duty of the press/media to have news items printed/telecast based on true and correct version relating to incidents worth reporting accurately and without any distortion/embellishment as well as without taking sides, cannot, therefore, be overemphasized," it added.
Guidelines for press reporting
The media ought to avoid or regulate news reports that touch upon any on-going inquiry/investigation into a criminal offence and present the same in a merely informative manner which may be of public interest instead of what, according to the media, the public is interested in.
Media reports should not harm the interests of the accused being investigated or a witness in the case or any such person who may be relevant for any investigation, with a view to satiate the thirst of stealing a march over competitors in the field of reporting, the court said.
The court directed the media to work within the framework as provided in the provisions of the Programme Code and prevented the media from Indulging in character assassination of any individual and thereby marring their reputation.
Accordingly, the court directed the media to exercise restraint and refrain from reporting any news item or initiating a discussion under the following conditions:
a. In relation to death by suicide, depicting the deceased as one having a weak character or intruding in any manner on the privacy of the deceased;
b. That causes prejudice to an ongoing inquiry/investigation by:
(i) Referring to the character of the accused/victim and creating an atmosphere of prejudice for both;
(ii) Holding interviews with the victim, the witnesses and/or any of their family members and displaying it on screen;
(iii) Analyzing versions of witnesses, whose evidence could be vital at the stage of trial;
(iv) Publishing a confession allegedly made to a police officer by an accused and trying to make the public believe that the same is a piece of evidence which is admissible before a Court and there is no reason for the Court not to act upon it, without letting the public know the nitty-gritty of the Evidence Act, 1872;
(v) Printing photographs of an accused and thereby facilitating his identification;
(vi) Criticizing the investigative agency based on half-baked information without proper research;
(vii) Pronouncing 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;
(viii) Recreating/reconstructing a crime scene and depicting how the accused committed the crime;
(ix) Predicting the proposed/future course of action including steps that ought to be taken in a particular direction to complete the investigation; and
(x) Leaking sensitive and confidential information from materials collected by the investigating agency;
The high court adopted Senior Advocate Arvind Datar's suggestion regarding the appointment of a Police Public Information Officer (PIO) to give authentic information about criminal investigations.
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