So will anything change?

BY Hootl Editorial| IN Media Practice | 13/07/2008
Arushi’s father is out on bail, pleading for the media to leave their family alone. Will a day come when trial by media becomes a cognizable offence?
A Hoot editorial

Memories are  short. Every time there is a paparazzi-like frenzy of satellite news television crews it seems like this is the first time things have reached such a shameful climax, where people are being hounded, reputations ruined and all professional restraint flung to the winds. But it is not the first time, and it will not be the last time either.


Before the Arushi murder case there was the case  of the murdered teenager Scarlett in Goa which saw the media feasting on lurid speculation. And before that there was the case of the Delhi school  teacher accused of  inducting girls into prostitution in a dubious sting operation by India Live. It was a cooked up story, the schoolgirl was actually an amibitious reporter aspirant, pretending to be one. But everybody picked up from the original story, the woman lost her job and was set upon by angry citizens, her reputation in tatters.   


 But yes, this particular double murder story has seen trial and conviction by the media in an extended,  unrestrained and unrelenting free for all. Coming out of jail where he was held for fifty days on suspicion of murdering his own daughter and a man servant, dentist Rajesh Talwar was seen and heard pleading with the media to let him spend time with his family. He was caught up in a swirling rush of cameras and microphones so determined that as his brother said later on television, they were left neither breathing space nor space to walk.   


IANS reported that hordes of TV crew were seen falling over each other in their frenzy to get a glimpse of Rajesh Talwar walking out of the jail at 8.35 a.m on the 12th. And it quoted his brother:"Let us help Dr. Rajesh come back to the mainstream so that he can lead a normal life. We will soon come to you. Please give us some time... please listen to us."


In the close to two months that it took for the investigations to deem the victim¿s father innocent, the media, picking up from announcements made by the NOIDA police, speculated day in and day out about the father¿s guilt, about the reputation of the young girl, and  about an affair between the father and his colleague that may have caused the young girl distress, in the process tarnishing reputations all round.


The longer it took for the case to be satisfactorily solved, the longer TV channels lived off it in the most incredible manner possible, with OB vans setting up shop in the neighbourhood. Channels like India TV, Aaj Tak and News 24 among others speculated endlessly on the flimsiest of leads. And on Sunday morning, even as CNN IBN and some newspapers discussed media culpability,  Aaj Tak was running a programme called Papa Kehete Hain, where a figure who looked like Rajesh Talwar, in a while kurta pyjama, sat with  its mouth slightly animated as if speaking, and a reporters voice intoned an imaginary first person monologue: Main Arushi ka Papa, Rajesh Talwar, aaj behad khush hun….( I Arushi¿s father, Rajesh Talwar, am very happy today…) The idea was to live off the Talwars again, but by dwelling on the positive turn in their lives, with the CBI declaration that thre was no evidence against Talwar, and his release on bail.


Rajdeep Sardesai in his new programme Weekend Edition on CNN IBN raised the question of whether the Talwars have a case for sueing the NOIDA police and the media for defamation. Deepak Chaurasia formerly of Aaj Tak and Doordarshan News, currently with Star TV, was aggressive to the point of shouting in asserting that the media had no culpability at all, it was all the police¿s fault, and that if it was not for the media the real killers in the Jessica Lal and Nitish Kataria cases would never have been pursued.


Let us then look at what people are  up against when they face a media free for all. First, the Indian cameramen and mike wielders do not just chase celebrities. They chase anybody who is in the news, and if it is for the wrong reasons the behaviour becomes more aggressive, more frenetic. This is not just classic news chasing  behaviour, when combined with speculative in-studio monologues it amounts to news perpetuating with an eye to holding onto ratings for a top-rated story.


Second, short of the courts, there is no forum for remedy. For all Mr Priyaranjan Dasmunsi¿s and Renuka Choudhury¿s periodic fulminations, the UPA government did not usher in any workable regulation or enforce self regulation. It could at least have put in place a complaints council with timebound hearing procedures and prescribed penalties. It did not. If telecom has a tribunal to take complaints, if there is a Press Council for newspapers, so should there be a complaints tribunal for television media. No government needs a great deal of population sanction to do this, only a majority voting for it in Parliament. Given public sentiment in the wake of such cases it should be possible to push it through.


The solution is also for defamation suits to be filed and for the courts to process these with exemplary speed so that they have deterrent value in the future.  


The 17th Law Commission has made recommendations to the Centre to enact a law to prevent the media from reporting anything prejudicial to the rights of the accused in criminal cases from the time of arrest, during investigation and trial. The subject "Trial by Media: Free Speech vs. Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971)" was taken up suo motu by the Commission having regard to the extensive prejudicial coverage of crime and information about suspects and the accused, both in the print and electronic media.


In its 200th report submitted to the Government, the Commission said, "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." Enclosing a draft Bill, the Commission said that this report was important and crucial for the country as far as criminal justice was concerned.


But neither the government nor lawmakers have done anything thereafter. It is time for citizens and voters to bring pressure.  A law that recognizes trial by media as an offence would make it possible for the frenetic hounders of victims and suspects to be themselves liable for arrest.   


Meanwhile, in the Arushi Tawar case, the media has now begun to talk of closure. But has the case been satisfactorily resolved? The weapons have not been found, the question of how servants had access to the girl¿s room not satisfactorily answered. Retreat from trial by media should not mean that the CBI is not questioned further about the holes that remain in their explanations. The present accused are from a section of society who do not have easy access to TV studios. Their families have been complaining that they have been framed. But is a trio of servants as an accused sexy enough for the media, or will it now turn away, justice be damned?











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