In June 2020, when the coronavirus cases began to rise in India, the atmosphere was gloomy. Suddenly, we heard of Sushant Singh Rajput, a young aspiring actor, committing suicide. The news of his death spread like wildfire. People doubted his death to be a murder and demanded an investigation. As a result, the CBI was tasked to investigate the death of Sushant. The media began to cover the investigation for their profits. When Rhea Chakraborty's name surfaced, the media began its trial against her. To such an extent that almost everyone believed her to be the culprit. As a result, she lost all her contacts in the film industry. Even the investigating officers developed a bias against her. In the end, she was declared innocent by the court.
Right to Fair Trial: A Fundamental Right
India is the signatory member of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 10 of the UDHR states that,
"Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing, by an independent and impartial tribunal, in determining his rights and obligations and any criminal charge against him."
In the case of Suk Das v. Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, the honourable Apex Court held that since an advocate did not represent the accused, there was no fair trial, and his right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 was infringed. The judgment highlights that the right to a fair trial is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The following are the characteristics of a fair trial:
There must be an unbiased judge or arbitrator to determine whether the accused is guilty or not.
The accused is given a reasonable opportunity to present his case before the court.
The accused must not be presumed guilty by the public. Otherwise, the accused finds it challenging to get support to prove innocence.
Freedom of Press
In the famous case of Print Mysore Ltd v. Assistant Commercial Tax Officer (1994), it was declared by the Supreme Court that the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1) includes the freedom of the press. Similarly, the case of Ramesh Thapper v. State of Madras (1950) held that,
"The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which the democratic electorate cannot make a responsible judgment." Moreover, the case of Bennett Coleman v. Union of India (1973) has expressly declared that the right to press includes the right to voice opinions and report events. All this makes it clear that the freedom of the press is a fundamental right. In India, freedom of the press is not absolute. It is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2). Those are:
in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India
the security of the state
friendly relations with the foreign states
decency or morality
concerning contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence
Since they are derived rights under the Part III of the Constitution, the conflict between them needs to be resolved constructively. In the famous case of Mr X v. Z, Hospital, the Supreme Court dealt with the conflict between Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21. In this case, the petitioner was a patient with HIV and was about to get married. When the doctor found out that the patient was getting married, he disclosed the patient's illness to the bride. The patient sued the doctor for violating his right to privacy. The Apex Court rejected the patient's claim and declared that freedom of the press would override the right to privacy on the ground that, in the present case, the freedom of the press advances the public interest. We may conclude that if there is a conflict between Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21, the public interest will be given the upper hand.
Recent Cases related to Freedom of the Press
In R. Rajagopal v. State of Madras (1994), the Apex Court upheld the freedom of the press to publish a book on the life of the convict who was sentenced to death under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code. The court's ratio was that the information regarding the convict was already in the public domain; therefore, the book's publication would not violate the privacy of the convict. In this case, the freedom of the press was given preference over the right to privacy under Article 21.
The Delhi High Court, in the case of Mother Dairy and Processing Ltd v. Zee Telefilms Ltd, while directing the media to restrain from reporting the conduct of the petitioner regarding its role in the milk adulteration, has remarked that "media as a part of its responsibility and accountability to the public should eschew sensational exaggeration and sweeping comments." This statement of the Delhi HC brings to light that the sometimes media, via its reporting, tends to incite the public. The accused may be deemed guilty in the eyes of the public before the court of law pronounces its decision. Since the judges are also part of the public, it is pretty reasonable that the judges might also get influenced by the trial carried out by the media.
In the case of Sahara India Real Estate Limited v. SEBI, the honourable Supreme Court evolved the doctrine of the postponement of the reporting of the proceedings of the court proceedings that could be detrimental to the right to a fair trial of the accused. However, this bar on reporting is not absolute. There are a few conditions that must be satisfied in order for the restriction to be operative.
The postponement of the reporting or publication should be operative only for a short duration of time.
It will be applied only in the cases where there is a natural and substantial risk of prejudice against the proper administration of justice and fairness of the trial.
The restriction must satisfy the test of proportionality and necessity within the permissible constitutional framework.
Thus, the freedom of the press can be restricted whenever it interferes with the administration of justice and violates the right to a fair trial of the accused.
In the case of Kartongen Kemi Och Forvaltning AB v. CBI, the Delhi High Court said that "This case is 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 shunning of his family, relatives and friends by the society. He is ostracised, humiliated and convicted without a trial." The words "convicted without trial" give weightage to the fact that the freedom of the press can sometimes be used to carry on a media trial against the accused, and the media trial can result in creating a hostile environment towards the accused, thereby violating his right to a fair trial under Article 21.
The Indian Constitution emphasises the fundamental rights of the citizens. Moreover, in the KS Puttaswamy Case (2017), the right to privacy is available against both state and non-state actors. Since the right to privacy is a derived right under Article 21 and the right to a fair trial is also the derived right under Article 21, the state and non-state actors can be made liable for doing acts that interfere with a fair trial.
It is indisputable that the media plays a crucial role in enlightening the masses about the affairs of a country, thereby enabling them to make informed decisions. However, while exercising its freedom of speech, reporting events, and voicing its opinion, the media should exercise caution not to violate the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and a fair trial. Since the freedom of speech is subject to the contempt of court, the High Courts and Supreme Court should exercise their powers to punish under articles 215 and 129 whenever the trial conducted by the media violates the rights of the accused as it interferes with the duty of the courts to do justice to the accused, thereby lowering its authority.