Media meddling with justice?

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 24/09/2006
The Law Commission wants the High Court to direct print and electronic media to postpone publication or telecast pertaining to a criminal case.

S R Ramanujan

The Special TADA court judge in Mumbai, P D Kode is quite unhappy that the media is transgressing its limits. He wants the media to exercise restraint. He does not want the media to interview the accused, prosecution and defence lawyers within the court premises(emphasis added). He also does not want the accused to be interviewed before the next day¿s work. Understandable concern on the part of the judiciary. There are certain ?reasonable? restrictions on press freedom and the media has to abide by them. But in these days of media activism, can we expect the media to uphold basic ethics of journalism?

The Special Public Prosecutor for the 1993 blasts trial,  Ujjwal Nikam and the defence lawyer Farhana Shah also have complaints, but for different reasons. Nikam, in fact, feels threatened. He points out that the moment a person is held guilty, the media goes to the house of the accused and interviews his relatives. Invariably the question includes fairness of the prosecution.  The relatives of those found guilty will naturally use abusive language and you can¿t expect them to give a certificate of merit to the prosecution lawyer.  Nikam says: ?It will be difficult for me to work if such interviews are permitted and will amount to indirect interference with the judicial process?. He has reasons to feel concerned about his security. Even as the judge was hearing Nikam, several of the accused were reported to have rushed to the dock shouting slogans against the Public Prosecutor.

Ironically, Nikam who is cut up with the media for interviewing the accused in their houses, does not find it odd to talk before the cameras about the nature of punishment he expects from the court, such as a death sentence. This is what angers the defence lawyer and the accused. Farhana Shah also brought to the notice of the Court the opinion polls run by various television channels on the judgment. The judge had to assure the accused that the verdict was given by the court and not the media.

The Special judge was perhaps within his rights to expect the media not to interview people within the court premises. There are certain conventions concerning the judiciary and judicial process and they have to be respected by everyone and media has no special privileges. But, is it right to restrain the media from interviewing the accused and conducting opinion polls? There could be different viewpoints on this. Certainly  the media cannot be told who it can interview and who it cannot. But at the same time it has to exercise its discretion in deciding whether such an interview with the accused would throw any further light on the facts of the case or would it be used to malign the prosecution and the court, lowering the image of the judiciary in the process.

Opinion polls on judgments are a bit dicey. If the opinion polls indicate that a particular judgment is against the mood of the people, the question before the judiciary would be whether it has to deliver judgments in accordance with law or what the people think to be right. Take for instance the interim orders of the Allahabad High Court on the Haj subsidy. An opinion poll among the minorities would not be in favour of the court orders. Should the Judges keep in mind as to what would be the outcome of an opinion poll before deciding on Constitutional issues?

There are also occasions when the media has taken upon itself the role of a judge and the prosecutor. When the Ujjain Professor Sabharwal was killed in a barbaric manner by a rampaging mob of students, a television channel, within 24 hours of the ghastly incident, passed a judgment that ABVP students were the killers. The evidence it had to come to this conclusion was a video clip in which two ABVP leaders were seen threatening a member of the teaching faculty (not Prof Sabharwal). There was unrest on the campus where  students of NSUI and ABVP were present and it is possible that the blows of ABVP guys might have proved fatal for the Professor. It is for the investigative agencies to frame charges and bring the guilty to book. It is not the job of the media to ?frame charges? against the guilty. At best, the media can question the delay in the investigation and framing of charges, which it did, but not pass a verdict as to who was guilty of the crime. For seven long days, this clip was the lead story on the channel.

When two kids were killed in police firing in Delhi on Wednesday at the time of traders¿ protest against sealing of shops, the anchor of a channel asked her field reporter to pose a question to a bereaved mother (an illiterate woman) even before she was able to recover from the shock of her life ?Whom she considers responsible for her son¿s death?? Can anything be more insensitive than this? What reply do you expect from her? The channel wanted her to blame the government or the police, eager to fix the responsibility for the unfortunate death of her son. On the contrary she blamed the hospital authorities since she had to say something before the camera.

This emerging trend of media activism is not going unnoticed. It is worth recalling here what the recommendations of the 17th Law Commission were to the Centre. The report of the Commission says : ?Today there is a feeling that in view of the extensive use of the television and cable services, the whole pattern of publication of news has changed and several such publications are likely to have a prejudicial impact on the suspects, accused, witnesses and even judges and in general on the administration of justice?. According to the Commission, none can be allowed to prejudge or prejudice the case of the accused by the time the case goes to trial. What is more, it wants powers for the High court to ?direct a print or an electronic media to postpone publication or telecast pertaining to a criminal case and to restrain the media from resorting to such publication or telecast?.

It will not be a happy situation for the media to be directed by courts on its dealing with the criminal cases. However, it is not certain whether the government would accept such a controversial recommendation as the Union Law Minister has already given a certificate of good conduct to the media. But some of the judges have a different viewpoint. The Chief  Justice of the Madras High Court A P Shah, while addressing a seminar, said that trial by media had created a problem because it involved a tug of war between two conflicting principles - free press and free trial. ?A trial by the press, the electronic media or public agitation, is the very antithesis of the rule of law and it can only lead to a miscarriage of justice?, Justice Shah said. 


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