Media is one of the four pillars of democracy. It plays a pivotal role in moulding and shaping the opinions of society. It is capable of forming or even changing the opinion of the majority. The media can be commended for starting a trend where it actively brings the accused on the hook, especially in the last two decades. Further, the advent of cable television, local radio networks, and the internet has greatly enhanced the reach and impact of mass media. The circulation of newspapers and magazines in various languages and vernaculars has also been continuously growing in our country.
There have been numerous cases where the media had taken the cases into their own hands and convicted the accused, even before the court could hear the case. There are quite a few instances where the accused would have been acquitted by the court had it not been for the media's wrath in shaping the opinions of the people and impacting the judiciary. For example, the Jessica Lal Case, 2010, the Priyadarshini Mattoo Case, 2006, and the Bijal Joshi Case, 2005. This phenomenon of declaring the accused guilty even before the court's judgment is referred to as media trials. The widespread coverage of the supposed guilt of the accused and imposing certain half-baked perceptions about him on the ordinary people, regardless of the verdict given by the court of law. There has been high publicity of court cases. The media has often played an essential role in creating hysteria among the viewers, making it nearly impossible for the trial to continue in a fair and just manner.
The reasons why the attention of the media around certain cases is sensationally high are:
➔ Cases involving children or so horrific or gruesome cases that the media considers it necessary to overplay such cases.
➔ Cases involving any celebrity, either as a victim or as the accused
➔ In cases where big celebrities are involved, the influence of the media could drastically change the opinion of the 'fans' overnight.
The history of media trials dates back to the 20th century. This term, though coined recently, had its meaning derived from the case of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, 1921, who was acquitted by the court but had lost all his reputation as well as his job after the media had declared him "guilty." Another famous case is the trial of O.J. Simpson, 1995, where the media promoted the case, thereby influencing the minds of the viewers contrary to the views of the court.
Often the coverage by the media can reflect the views of an ordinary man. Therefore, the media can act as a bridge between the various prevailing opinions across the world. However, with the media more and more under the scrutiny of law every day, it has been advised that they should only publish facts about any person under trial, and only after thorough research along with citing credible sources.
The constitutionality of media trials depends upon the impact it leaves on society and its people. To establish the rule of law, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are both mandatory.
Though the media acts as a watchdog and is also a platform to raise people's voices, today, the news is often dramatised and is done only for salaries and TRP. Some channels only broadcast such headlines for which the political parties have paid for them. The media has to be adequately regulated by the courts and laws. Furthermore, they cannot be granted a free hand in court proceedings as trials are not some sporting event to be made into headlines and advertised.
The most suitable way to regulate the media will be to exercise the contempt jurisdiction of the courts to punish those who violate the basic code of conduct. The Supreme Court has approved the use of contempt powers against media channels and newspapers in several cases. The media cannot be allowed freedom of speech and expression to such an extent that it prejudices the trial itself.
A trial is greatly affected by the media over emphasising matters. Judges, while making decisions, start considering broadcasted criticisms. Hence, in most high-profile cases, the verdict passed by the media also becomes the final verdict by the courts.