Real victims of crime reporting

IN Media Practice | 04/03/2005
The media’s ‘freedom of expression’ often infringes on the rights of those undergoing a trial.


Dasu Krishnamoorty



There seems to be some unease in the judiciary about the media coverage of legal proceedings. According to an IANS report The Hoot carried, the Supreme Court strongly deprecated media interference with the administration of justice by publishing one-sided articles on cases pending in the courts.


Disposing a bail petition filed in a dowry death case, a bench of Justices N. Santosh Hegde and S.B. Sinha expressed distress at an article appearing in a Kolkata magazine titled ‘Doomed by Dowry’ and described it as a trial by the media. The article was based solely on an interview with the parents of a woman who committed suicide because of alleged harassment by in-laws. Noting that the facts narrated in the article are likely to be used during the trial, the judges said that this type of article would interfere with the administration of justice.


The country has a history of confrontations between the judiciary and the legislatures. There have been several skirmishes between the judiciary and the media that still have not reached a point of confrontation, mainly because of judicial restraint. Soon after the jailing of Arundhati Roy for contempt of court, some editors used intemperate language against the judiciary and called for its dissolution. Treading, perhaps unthinkingly, on the toes of the judiciary, has now become an essential part of media operations. Though it happens as often as when a prominent personality is in the dock for the wrong reasons, it is rare for the judiciary to remind the media of its responsibilities. However, there is nothing that the judiciary can do when the media begins to try and convict people even before their cases come up before the courts. The real victims of such reporting are the suspects and undertrial prisoners.


The tendency of the media to hijack judicial business has become a constant trait and should cause public concern. It has already delivered its judgment in the case of Paritala Ravi, a Telugu Desam Party leader in faction-ridden Rayalaseema of Andhra Pradesh, even as the CBI has just begun its investigation. Minutes after Ravi’s murder outside the TDP office in Anantapur, TV tickers were identifying the killer as a person serving a term in Charlapalli jail for an earlier attack on Ravi in Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills. Newspapers carried scores of stories with fiction as the main ingredient, dragging the names of the chief minister’s son and the name of a director-general of police. All this even before the CBI team began its investigations.


The bail plea by some of the suspects now hinges on the ‘kite flying’ by media. In such cases, there is little chance of a bail for any of the suspects. This will again amount to judicial endorsement of media stories. When the actual trial begins, the courts will have to sift through not only the evidence before them but also the media reports that some of the defence lawyers or prosecutors might cite in support of their arguments. 


The TV coverage of Ravi murder concentrated on the spilt blood and mutilated carcasses, on women crying over the death of a bread winner, on men and women stoning and burning public transport, on the politicians egging on their constituents for further violence, on police helplessness and on everything associated with the Dark Ages. Cameras hovered repeatedly on death and destruction. Newspapers ran explicit commentaries supportive of TV reporting. TV anchors interviewed everyone from NGOs to human rights activists, from university dons to trade union leaders and from forensic experts to mortuary attendants. They invited theories to explain the motives of the murderers, social factors that generated mindless hatred, the growing culture of crime and retribution in politics etc. Now that the media has spent its fury and steam, people have returned to a world of reality that media is wont to gloss over.


Imagine innocent people having to defend themselves because the media believes they have a hand in some crime or the police arresting a person on the basis of media speculation. Is it possible for the media to show the same concern for the man on the streets as it shows for a fellow journalist? Are journalists different from common people? Investigative reporting brings disaster if the quest for truth is not based on facts which are duly checked and verified. A question mark indicating doubt or quotation mark indicating dissociation does not absolve the media of responsibility for what happens to victims of casual reporting. Since judicial activism is often based on media reports, media has to exercise extreme caution in pointing needles of suspicion.


Around this time last year, the Delhi High Court said, "Fairness of trial is of paramount importance as without such a protection there would be trial by media, which no civilized society can and should tolerate.  There is nothing more incumbent upon courts of justice than to preserve their proceedings from being misrepresented to prejudice the minds of the public against persons concerned before the case is finally heard." Justice J.D. Kapoor made these observations while pronouncing verdict in the Bofors pay-off case. The judge said that the Bofors case was "a nefarious example which manifestly demonstrates how the trial and justice by media can cause irreparable, irreversible and incalculable harm to the reputation of a person and a shunning of his family, relatives and friends by the society. Such a person is ostracized, humiliated and convicted without trial. All this puts at grave risk due administration of justice." The judge recalled how Daler Mehndi became a victim of media trial though the police could not find enough evidence even to file a charge-sheet.


The Times of India has an interesting take on media investigation. In an editorial on December 20, 04, it said, "Media interrogations destroy public selves through private questions. Any young aspiring journalist asks a set of troublesome questions and before the person can answer them, the journalist has moved on. It is trial by innuendo, by insults and without a full right to reply. You can be made to be communal, incompetent and irresponsible by a string of loaded questions, many of which we may not deign to answer in an ordinary conversation. The ethics of image management becomes crucial here. It can be a simple issue like one’s right to be a Hindu without being branded communal. Can TV take it away? The recent picture of the Shankaracharya breaking down during interrogation and weeping is one such example. Even if you think he is guilty, is such a curiosity or voyeurism necessary?"


In the absence of any logic for the media discussing cases that are purely the business of the judiciary, it is difficult to allay suspicions that the media has an interest in either influencing the outcome of inquiries such as those which Justices Nanavati and Banerjee are entrusted with or serving a party cause. Some of us may even ask if Godhra had ever happened. Suppose, the judiciary asks media persons to appear before the court and tell the judges from where they got their information and the basis for their conclusions. This is happening frequently in the United States where any refusal to divulge the source of their information or answer questions asked by the judges invites a running fine or imprisonment. Recently two New York Times reporters tasted the fury of the judiciary. If relations between the judiciary and the media reach that stage, it is good for neither.


India, however, has very few instances of a court prosecuting the media for discussing something that is sub judice unless the contents directly and conspicuously contradict a defence or prosecution presentation. However, media stories attract penal provisions only after a case has begun. But what about all the speculative stories that appear before a trial begins with potential to influence the course of justice? Journalists and editors should bear ultimate responsibility for what their newspapers print and publish about matters likely to come up before courts as evidence.


Freedom of expression is not a divine right. It comes with several riders that can be found both in our Constitution, the Indian Penal Code and several other laws. That right is based on the respect the media extends to other sections of the society. Ten years ago, India Today sought and obtained permission from an additional session’s judge to interview gangster Babloo Srivastava cooling his heels in Tihar jail. The jail authorities successfully appealed to the Supreme Court against the grant of permission. Justices G.B. Pattanaik and M.B. Shah ruled that the press did not have an unfettered right to interview an undertrial prisoner. The judges should have asked the magazine to explain the motives for interviewing Srivastava.


Last month the Andhra Pradesh High Court denied permission to three TV news channels, TV9, ETV and Teja TV, to interview Maddicherla Suri, prime suspect in Paritala Ravi murder. The judge said, "An average man gathers a feeling that a concerted attempt is being made to divert the attention of the prosecution as well as the public to cover the real culprits. Accuracy in reporting has suffered a setback in the recent past, more so in the case of the electronic media." Don’t the editors know that the prisoner enjoys the right to defend himself? Large-scale and intensive media coverage of sensitive cases generates an environment hardly conducive to a free trial. It may end up in an innocent person going to jail or to the gallows and many a time denies him the benefit of doubt. Even while defending their own rights, the media and journalists should find ways of respecting rights of other institutions such as the judiciary and their wards. 



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