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TV media's celebrity trials: Freedom of Speech destroying Right to Fair Trial

The speech delivered by Madabhushi Sridhar at Media Education Foundation of India, on September 14, 2020

The electronic media today is totally controlled by politically vested interests, and they are setting the agenda for news to be communicated. The only aim of these broadcasts is to divert the people from real issues to glamour of crime stories, more so, if celebrities are involved. It’s not just an idiot box. It is a tool in their hands to fool the viewers. The second major function of today’s biased media is perception management, as per their designs, and not the needs of the people.

Most of the time, the media is successfully diverting the attention of the people from real issues to trivial incidents like suicide by Sushant Singh Rajput and verbal war against and by Kangana Ranaut, etc.  Media today is India today. 

The electronic channels have became tunnels between the politically biased corporate commercial organizations and power and working to change the perception about issues, on secularism, nationalism and communalism.

They choose some celebrities and probe into their private life based on some sensational incident like love affairs, suicides etc. Telugu media also is following same with suicide of TV actress Shravani. TV shows like Big Boss also attract unnecessary attention by the electronic media, making people unconscious about the real issues troubling the people. They provide most comfortable time to governments facilitating them to continue with anti-people and anti-constitutional activities, policies and changes in law and administration.

Setting wrong agenda for diversion

On one hand they do not cover the real issues of people’s concern, and on the other, select some individuals and launch tirades of campaign against them. There is a general criticism that media is conducting a trial of persons even before the real trial began. Even though the courts acquit, much before it, media convicts them. I am not interested in defending Media from this criticism. But, let us understand what exactly happens. Media rarely investigates on its own. Media men, now-a-days, are very lazy and confined to hand-out journalism, totally depend upon the leaks and ‘sources’ that leak or give lead or explain an opinion, which they carry as either exclusive news or investigative story. It is hypocrisy. Why police leak a particular piece of information from their investigation? They have a selective interest in it. The media carries it for its own interest.

Rhea Chakraborthy or Sushant are not national issues. They do not deserve the most valuable time of top investigating agencies and huge time every day from senseless, non-senseful and nuisance like programs of media. Police and investigating agencies are trying Rhea through media. The channels became tools in their hands.  Somebody is arrested as if under the pressure of media, for consumption of drugs, though they possessed or once had less than criminalized quantum of ordinary drugs, (again not to support the dangerous beginning of addiction), but they are not ready to question the real drug importing, distributing mafia. Whales are left out, and colourful small fish are netted by these highly efficient investigators.

Neither media nor the people imagine about the possible conviction of these sensational trials by investigating agencies, but their private life is totally ruined.

Individual journalists and their associations became irrelevant and coordinated media corporates are enjoying their freedom of trade, of speech and using for strengthening links with political power.

Killing fair comment

The Courts wield the sword of contempt of court, Executive the sedition, and Corporate power the weapon of privacy and copyright violation to silence the criticism, suppress the dissent and prevent the discussion.

Fatal mix of social and electronic media

The fatal mix of social media and electronic media is what India is witnessing. They quote some tweets and facebook postings as source of their news article. Political parties have employed the IT army to propagate fake news, and politically sensational stories to create hate among the people against some political opponents. In 2019 elections, such strategies have been adopted to win. The photos of PM and other leaders are released with great preparation at very crucial times just to divert the attention and engage them in futile discussions. Everything is well planned and strategized to fool the people. Media is a tool of politicians to fool the people.

If this continues the media will lose its credibility soon and fall from the eyes of people.

Recently an enthusiast has written obituary for Electronic media reminding the seniors the obit during Emergency in 1976. 

Because of continuous coverage and sensational comments by anchors and guests, with thousands of repeated telecasts of a few clips involving the ‘star’, the investigating and enforcing agencies are under constant pressure to show some arrests, to keep up their sagging image. The top agencies like CBI, ED and Narcotics Bureau. All sorts of FIRs are filed to engage the news channels, for instance, FIR filed against the Sushant’s sisters and a doctor and then case was sent to CBI. (Sept 8)

Can PILs bring justice?

The Bombay High Court said that it expects Media To show restraint in reporting & not to hamper investigation in Sushant Singh Rajput Case.

Nilesh Navlakha(filmmaker/producer), Mahibub D. Shaikh(editor of a regional newspaper) and retired civil servant Subhash Chander Chaba filed a PIL seeking a direction to the Centre to enforce its program code against the TV channels to stop the “media trial” in the case. There is yet another PIL by 8 former IPS officers contending that the media was carrying out a “malicious campaign against the Mumbai police“. They are bothered about reputation of Bombay police, which is under constant attack. They wanted the court to direct the Union of India, Press Council of India, News Broadcaster’s Association and News Broadcasting Standards Authority to issue guidelines to restrain media from publishing any content that may jeopardize the reputation of Mumbai police.

In another interesting PIL, the Bombay HC refused to restrain “Shiv Cable Sena”’s boycott of Republic TV. The HC that it will have no effect in law.

This means there is no remedy available in courts for repeated  bashing of nuisance shows about some individuals during or after their life, which became their inherent freedom of speech. Tavleen Singh, senior journalist commented that Rhea and her family have been sacrificed at the altar of lynch mob journalism. She wrote: “They were meant to be newsmen but more resembled voyeurs at a lynching. They were just following orders. It is their bosses who need to be held to account. Their bosses are the most famous TV anchors in this country, and they have turned journalism into a lynch mob”.

She further commented: All this on camera in shrill, hysterical tones. When she finally emerged, they shoved their microphones in her face and jostled to get closer than the rest so they could relay their ‘breaking news’ and their ‘exclusive’ pictures fastest.

Can media question mafia dons?

The media has no guts to challenge influential mafia or unwilling investigators. She rightly asked, “had this media pressure been put on the Narcotics Bureau for the arrest of the mafia that controls the international drug trade it would have been taxpayers’ money well used. But, this mafia is ruthless and brutal, so neither journalists nor officials dare get in its way, leave alone investigate drug trafficking”.

The problem lies not in individual journalists but in their institution’s bias inherently rooted in ownerships, acquisition and taking over.

Freedom of speech attacking right to fair trial

It is true that the right to freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right. What about the right to free and fair trial? It is a basic human right. Unlike freedom of speech, this right is absolute, and it cannot be taken away at all. You cannot also limit it.

Senior Advocate R A Sundaram observed: “Whether we like it or not, media has become a public court and has made itself a court of public opinion. Media is doing that because the public has lost faith in looking anywhere else. Public opinion is listening to the fourth estate because of the failure of other estates”.He did not hesitate to say:”The media as a watchdog of public opinion and interest – that is wonderful. But let the media not become a guard dog for the blind leading the public as if they are blind”.

Indian Constitution and Criminal law give many rights to the accused. The first thing is the right of presumption of innocence. Even before some one is called ‘accused’, even at the stage of ‘suspicion’ which is also generated by media, a person is badly bashed by media and a perception that he might be guilty is generated. Sushant is fighting this even after his death, while his sisters and friends are facing it. In a way Rhea Chakravarthy deserves all appreciation for her courage of facing so many cameras, unkind cross examination by senior journalists, and hundreds of hours of interrogation for days, weeks and fortnights. Media cannot influence illegal arrests. It is something beyond the media trial, which is now an outdated and irrelevant phrase. Even before becoming ‘accused’, the suspect loses the right to be presumed innocent’. Media injects in the mind of people the belief of guilt.

A confession to police officer is not admissible in court of law as evidence. But police produce a person as an accused and who is made in the presence of dozens of police officer to confess the crime before the media. When prosecutors fail to prove crime because except confession there is no other evidence, culprit will be acquitted. Is this media trial?

The interrogation details are deliberately leaked to press. Before the charge sheet is filed, the interrogation details in media can cause serious change in the minds of people in general and also the judges.

The so-called accused, before they are made accused and after, are paraded before press and electronic media, which repeats the videos. This can cause serious damage to fair identification of accused by the eyewitnesses, which might ultimately result in acquittal of a culprit, because of advanced exposure of accused’s identity through media.

Media’s verbal violence vs right to silence

Article 20(3) guarantees every person a right not to be prosecuted on his or her own statement or complaint. It is called right against self-incrimination or right to silence. Neither police nor media can force him or her to give self-incriminating information. Media’s freedom cannot deprive this right of Rhea Chakravarthy.

This principle of common law, the ‘right to silence’ means that normally courts cannot be allowed to conclude that a suspect or an accused is guilty merely because he has refused to respond to questions put to him by the police or by the Court.  Media cannot say that they can do, what police cannot. It was essentially the right to refuse to answer and incriminate oneself in the absence of a proper charge. Not initially, the right to refuse to reply to a proper charge.”

Breaking of silence by the accused can be before a magistrate but should be voluntary and without any duress or inducement. Article 20 (3) of Indian Constitution says: “No person accused of any offense shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”.

Supreme Court explained how the media could destroy the reputation and establish the guilt of a person. in R.K. Anand v. Delhi High Court, (2009) 8 SCC 106 Supreme Court said that the trial by media is that kind of television and newspaper reporting affecting a person’s reputation aims at producing a widespread perception of guilt, independent of any court verdict. As rightly observed by Abhishek Manu Singhvi, “Indian media has plummeted in the wrong direction in the equation between sense and sensationalism, chaos and civility, news and noise, balance and extremism…Time may not be far where we have to invent new offences of ‘verbal terrorism’, ‘visual extremism’, and ‘content fundamentalism’.

He further said: If you add to this toxic triangle the doses of politics, glamour, insidious govt control, premeditated and motivated stance, ambitious anchors and a public baying for blood – it becomes a heavy cocktail which would make the manufacturers of whiskey, vodka blush”. “…several anchors and journalists have “mortgaged their calling and conscience for the temporary lure of wealth and power”…..”The object of media trial is to create a perception of reality. The merits and the outcome become immaterial. No second thought is given about taking a side and pronouncing verdict of guilty by playing the roles of prosecutor, jury and executor”, 

Lynch mob media

The Media was compared to a lynch mob too. In high-profile cases, media are often accused of causing an environment of mass outrage comparable to a to lynch mob, which not only makes a fair trial unlikely but also ensures that, irrespective of the outcome of the trial, accused is already guilty in the eyes of the public perception and therefore is condemned to live the rest of his life under intense public scrutiny.

Selective ‘crimes’

There is another selective phenomenon. The media will not take up all crimes, it picks up only high-profile cases for sensation or selective crimes as per their policy of loyalty. Or there may be any other influence working behind such selection. The poor victims are those who are economically poor accused, who are none of their concern

The SC said in State of Maharashtra v. Rajendra Jaunmal Gandhi, (1997) AIR SC 3986 that a trial by press, electronic media or public agitation is an anti-thesis to the rule of law. It can lead to the miscarriage of justice.

The reach of media has now stretched to cause interference with the working of courts of law by destroying the “presumption of innocence until guilt is proved”. They also do not bother about the requirement of proving “guilt beyond the reasonable doubt”.[State of U.P. v. Naresh and Ors., (2001) 4 SCC 324.] The distress caused by media in litigation during ongoing proceedings in a court of law can also cause huge delay. [Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, (1979) AIR SC 1364].

A couple of decades ago, media’s investigation was parallel to that of authorities and exposing the holes in the evidence, which made the courts and police to relook into their conclusions. The examples are Jessica Lal Murder Case and Nitish Katara cases.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the impact of media on growing suspicion against parents for murder of Arushi Talwar. Media was frequently hitting headlines back and forth prematurely accusing the parents for the murder. In any crime, if a celebrity is involved, media plays a role and certainly influence minds of authorities, besides making people to believe them to be criminals.

We need unbiased Media and fair and quick Judiciary

We need both media and judiciary. They should protect each other. If reverse of it happens the people will be blind and denied of the justice. While the freedom of speech and expression of the media, the right to know of the people need to be protected and promoted, the right to fair trial of the accused needs to be secured and guaranteed.

Media try to justify its role saying the institutions have failed and people lost faith in police, and other institutions, which became corrupt. People believe that rich can easily escape and only poor or downtrodden are thrown behind bars. The failure of investigators and unpardonable delay in justice dispensation made people to believe what media says.

Then what is the remedy or answer to this adverse role of media damaging the individual’s reputation, peoples’ sense of fairness by repeated bombarding of false information laced with high sound comments, but also impacting the right to fair trial.

Complete take over of media by corporate multinationals will work against the freedom of speech. Seeking the government’s intervention could result in government tamed or government trained media telling what Government wants people to know. The Government can convert every media regulation into a Prasar Bharti or media into Doordarshan or Akashvani. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or PMO should not have any power to deal with media.

Demand for Independent Rating Agency

TRP agency has 44 thousand measuring meters in a country of 130plus crore people. The analysis of this small sample called ‘universe’ will decide the entire universe of India’s masses! For that media does all this damage? An independent rating agency with wide universe and diverse sample collection with scientific methods of understanding the positive reach of media to certify them.

Asking courts to control will be equally dangerous. PILs cannot rescue people from adverse media.

Effective Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the only way. But where is self-regulation? Press Council cannot reach Electronic media. It also cannot bring any change in Press, as that is headed by a non-journalist, among other reasons like lack of independence and domination of press managers etc. The NBSA and Advertisements Standards Council of India are doing better job, than several Government agencies. Their models can be extended.

The Fifth Estate

The well-reasoned people, who do not have political bias, or primary membership of parties, with their education and wisdom, constitute Fifth Estate, called ‘civil society’, who shall raise their voice in social media, and question the self-destroying trends of senseless, sensational-filled, propaganda, trial and sentencing of innocents with poisonous sentences with high decibels. The channels should suffer loss of viewership and close their shops for generating such unsound sounds. The fifth society shall scrutinize the fourth estate, to save constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights being invaded by private and public agencies.

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