The Kerala High Court on Tuesday observed that intense media scrutiny on cases and publishing of leaked information and half truths about ongoing trials impede the faith of the public in the justice-delivery system [TN Suraj v State of Kerala].
Justice Mohammed Nias CP held that speculation by the media on the outcome of ongoing investigations or court proceedings, especially in criminal trials, is not protected under the freedom of press under Article 19(a) of the Constitution.
“Publication of leaks from the investigation agencies and to level allegations against individuals based on such leaks are not protected by the freedom of press under Article 19 (a) of the Constitution and it cannot be a defense that what was telecast was the allegation based on the prima facie findings of an investigating agency or worse on the basis of suspicions of Investigating agency. As far as criminal trial is concerned, any reporting beyond the factual statement of what has transpired in a court room can be curbed in a given case,” the order said.
The High Court observed that even though media interest and debates are permitted in a democracy like India, it is plainly impermissible to suggest/publish/telecast that a person is guilty or a witness is unreliable.
“Media cannot usurp the jurisdiction of the courts which alone has the constitutional authority to decide the guilt/innocence of a person or decide on the content, quality or the width of any right available to any citizen/accused/suspect. The rule of law, a basic feature of our Constitution grants every accused a right to ensure that he is tried in accordance with the procedure laid down by the criminal laws on the basis of the evidence let in the trial and without the court trying the case being influenced by a parallel trial by media or by commits and discussions by the media in regard to matters which are sub judice,” the Court stated in its order.
Trial by media results in denigration of the justice delivery system which without doubt, is the very foundation of the rule of law in any democratic set up.
Kerala High Court
The judgment drew attention to not only the prejudicial effect of media trial but also the erosion it causes in people’s faith in the justice-delivery system.
“In a trial by media which apart from adversely affecting the rights of an accused for a fair trial has immense power to influence public opinion….This loss of faith in justice delivery system is aggravated when the judge, not the judgment itself is subjected to media criticism. In such cases, trial by media results in denigration of the justice delivery system which without doubt, is the very foundation of the rule of law in any democratic set up”, the Court opined.
The Court was hearing a plea by Suraj, the brother-in-law of cine actor Dileep seeking gag on media, specifically Reporter TV from reporting about him in relation to a murder conspiracy case in which Dileep and he are accused.
It was also prayed that there should be a gag on reporting about him in actress assault case in which Dileep is the prime accused.
It was alleged that the respondent-channel was subjecting him to media trial and resorting to sensationalism and publication of fabricated allegations against him. It was also argued that two of the officers investigating the case were leaking information to the media.
The Court noted that it needs to balance the right of the public to know the details of the criminal case through the media, the media’s right to freedom of speech and expression, the right of the victim to bring out the truth through a fair trial, the presumption of innocence that the accused or the suspect has until proved guilty, the right to reputation, privacy which are facets of Article 21 of the Constitution available to the parties and above all the indefeasible right for a due administration of justice.
The Court opined that if Reporter TV has actually published the material as alleged by the petitioner, the same would amount to gross interference in the due administration of justice.
“Considering the nature of the contents of the publication/telecast in Exts. P8 to P11 and that those materials had not been established in any legal proceedings, there cannot be any justification for permitting such publications. Thus viewed, I have no hesitation to hold that the instant case warrants the extreme step of passing directions against the 6th respondent to prevent such publications in future,” the Court said.
Therefore, it issued an interim gag-order preventing Reporter TV from publishing any material related to the case for a period of three weeks.
Further, the Court issued notice to three high-ranking police officers who, according to the petitioner, had been leaking information to the media.
It also directed the officers to file counter affidavits by April 29, when the matter will be considered next.
The Kerala High Court had recently ordered the Kerala Police to investigate into the allegations by Dileep that Reporter TV and other media outlets violated a trial court order which had imposed a gag on media from reporting proceedings in the actress assault case.
The Kerala High Court has been seized of several cases involving Dileep and his associates, all with intense media coverage.
While granting anticipatory bail to Dileep, Suraj and some other accused in the murder conspiracy case, the Court had said that even though free speech must be protected zealously, the same cannot be a license for persons with little knowledge of legal principles to abuse the justice delivery system.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in a separate case had held that any debate or discussion on a public platform such as a television channel touching on criminal cases which are in the domain of courts would amount to direct interference in administration of criminal justice.