TRIAL BY MEDIA: facilitating free speech or interrupting free trial?

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 In a democratic set-up like ours, the most significant task of the ‘media’ is to assist the flow of information in the right direction in order to support the democracy and uphold its people’s right to information, right to know and form opinions simultaneously with their right to privacy and fair trial. Hence, the media needs to be responsible enough to provide accurate information and objective reporting of the events including the cases involving the judicial trials. The media has also taken up the role of public court and has helped in the process of justice. However, there have been a large number of cases where media did not perform the way expected and received criticism for intruding in the process of administration of justice. In this article, the author discusses the role of media trial in India and whether it assists in providing justice or interrupts the process. 


The escalating reach of media has made it an imperative part of every citizen’s life. People look forward to media for information on public matters that would help them in opinion building and decision making. The trustworthiness of news media lies on unbiased and objective reporting. Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression to every citizen. However, this is not an absolute right and can be restricted by law in accordance with the Article 19 (2) which states that in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence the Article 19 (1) can be nullified”. Media is regarded as the fourth pillar of the democracy and has a large number of roles to play in the society. It can play an important role in the process of opinion building.

One of the many roles taken up by media is being the “public court” and undertaking the trials popularly known as media trials. The characteristics of media trials include that the media itself does the investigation, builds the opinion and accordingly presents the facts and the judicial trials in front of the people. Although this role of media serves people’s Right to know but it also hampers a person’s right to fair trial because of which this role of media has brought to itself criticism and has become controversial. This is because the trial by media can adversely impact the public opinion causing the criminal suspect to lose reputation and career. On the top of that media trials might also create pressure on the jury. Although the Judges are not supposed to be influenced by the media coverage but they might subconsciously be affected.

The pre trial coverage done by the media tends to forget the rule of presuming innocence until proven guilty and sometimes even completely overlooks the essential difference among the suspected, accused, charged, convicted and even acquitted and present the person in front of the masses as guilty.  This harms the trial in progress and even affects the present and potential witnesses of the case. This may also harm a person’s right to the legal representation as happened in the serial killing case in Nodia. Influenced by the media coverage which proclaimed that Mohinder Singh Pandher and his domestic help Surendra Kohli have already confessed to their crime, the local Bar Association announced that no advocate from Noida would defend the two men in court (HRF/164/07).

This tendency of media may very well be called as the contempt of court as it scandalizes and prejudices the trial and hinders the administration of justice. In Zahira Habibullah Sheikh v. State of Gujarat, the Supreme Court explained that a “fair trial obviously would mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and atmosphere of judicial calm. Fair trial means a trial in which bias or prejudice for or against the accused, the witnesses, or the cause which is being tried is eliminated.” (HRF/164/07). Irony here is that, in today’s media-saturated society, the news media still maintained its position as a watchdog to the society and media trials were done to check the influence of power and money on judiciary but now we observe that even media is falling pray to power and money. Brutal competition, race for TRPs and commercialization has diluted the ethical standard of journalism. People turn to manipulating media for serving their own interest. Even the audience has started to get used to the real life events presented in exciting and fun way. Keeping the eyeballs stick to the channel has become the only target of the news media which requires enormous number breaking news for the whole day. Due to this, “getting the news first” gain all the focus instead of “getting the right news” even if it require trespassing the boundaries and committing contempt of court. The reporting of trial procedure is important and restricting it would not be in public interest as people would like to know what happened in the trial but it should be done in a non-partial and objective manner.    

There is also a brighter side of the “trial by media”. Media act as a check over judiciary and thus reinforce the power of democracy by helping in providing justice and sentence. Some of the famous criminal cases and corruption scams that would have gone unpunished and unnoticed by the mass got busted and received their ends due to the involvement of the media. Priyadarshini Mattoo case, Jessica Lal murder case, Nitish Katara murder case, Bijal Joshi Rape case, embezzlement cases like Bofors case, CWG scam, 2G scam, Operation Dhritrashtra are some of the cases where media received appreciation and made us proud for its intervention and performance. Media trial promotes discussion and expression of opinions.

According to Ray Surette, ‘trial-by-media’ have “three basic falvours”: “Sinful Rich type”, “Evil Stranger, psychotic killers” and “Abuse of power trial” (Khan.Z, 2010). Media trial done for Nitish Katara murder case or Jessica Lal Murder or Mattoo case etc case would be the examples for the “sinful rich type” category, the ‘serial killings’ case in Noida will come under the “evil stranger, psychotic killers” and the examples for “abuse of power” would be 2G scam, Adarsh scam, CWG scam etc. A recent event in Indi, where the Union Law Minister, Salman Khurshid had to face media trial would also constitute in the example list of “abuse of power” trial. The India Today Group’s Hindi TV channel Aaj Tak and the India Against Corruption group headed by Arvind Kejriwal initiated and lead the campaign against the humanitarian trust for helping differently abled people run by Khurshid’s wife, Lousie. She was alleged of wrongful use of funds amounting to more than 70 lakh sanctioned by the government for humanitarian relief. The Sting operation done by India today group, Operation Dhritrashtra highlighted the misappropriation of funds by the NGO. In the Bofors Case, the Supreme Court mentioned the merits of media publicity: “those who know about the incident may come forward with information; it prevents perjury by placing witnesses under public gaze and it reduces crime through the public expression of disapproval for crime and last but not the least it promotes the public discussion of important issues.” (Khan.Z,2010). In the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case, when the Delhi High Court convicted Singh, seven years after a trial court had acquitted him, the woman’s father, Chaman Lal Mattoo wrote in the Indian Expree newspaper “I can’t thank the media enough. If it was not for the media, we would have lost the spirit and battle.” (Khan.Z,2010). Similarly, In Praful Kumar Sinha v/s State of Orissa, a writ against sexual exploitation of blind girls in school was filled before the Supreme Court on the basis of an article published in a newspaper. (Khan.Z, 2010)

However, it also drew criticism in the reporting of Aarushi Talwar murder case, ‘serial killings’ in Nodia, Dharun Ravi’s case and others. When there is a case in the court, instead of starting a parallel trial, the media should wait for the decision and then criticize it. The pejorative statements about a case in media can alter the direction of the case and so it should not compromise with the ethical side of journalism just for the sake of selling news. Such contents of media sometimes add to the public anger which further add to undue pressure on the jury, government, lawyers, witnesses, etc.

The four pillars of democracy (Judiciary, legislative, executive and media) should function in synchronization with eachother without interrupting the administration of eachother’s duties for smooth running and strengthening of the democracy. Trial is a process to be carried out by the court. Hence the media should watch its actions that might lead to undermining of judicial sanctity, interruptions in the administration of justice, prejudiced trials and hampering of the right to privacy and right to fair trial. Due to the growing complaints of “trial by media”, the Chief Justice of India, S.H. Kapadia initiated a discussion on framing guidelines for court reporting and representation of a case in media that is still under judicial trial. Many people believe that trail by media is a contempt of court which can take place by to scandalizing the court proceedings, prejudicing trial and hindering the administration of justice. Media should work in the direction where they report the trial and are not put on the trail. If a journalist misreports certain event, then s/he should be held responsible. Access of information is essential to the health of democracy (Sharma,S.R, 2010) but encroaching in the privacy or interfering in a person’s right to free trial is equally harmful. The Orissa High Court in Bijoyananda v. Bala Kush (AIR 1953 Orissa 249) observed that – “the responsibility of the press is greater than the responsibility of an individual because the press has a larger audience. The freedom of the press should not degenerate into a licence to attack litigants and close the door of justice nor can it include any unrestricted liberty to damage the reputation of respectable persons.” (Khan.Z,2010).




Khan,Zehra (2010), Trial by media: derailing judicial process in India, Media law Review, NALSAR, Hyderabad, Vol.1 pg.90   accessed on14th November, 2012. Human Rights Featurs (Voice of the Asia Pacific Human Rights Network) HRF/164/07   27April2007 accessed on14th November, 2012. accessed on14th November, 2012. accessed on14th November, 2012.

Sharman, Shobha Ram (2010) Judicial activism of media  accessed on14th November, 2012.

Law Commission of India 200th report in ‘Trial by media’



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  • Good analysis of critical issue and well explained. Media is only tool for society to gather political, economical and societal knowledge or information. For me anyone is free to keep or express his view on any issue. I think any debate is acceptable if the debate has not convicted guilty of which case is in process in the real trial. If any issue is discussed with the facts and relevant information then why only media but any can express his/her point of view. We should not pose checks on media if media is on ethical and disciplined path and releasing the facts and right information. But If wrong information or rumors are being spread that should be punished either it is media or person.

    from Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India

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