The Supreme Court has taken strong exception to ‘media trials’ – referring to “biased reporting (that) gives rise to public suspicion the person has committed an offence” – and directed the Union Home Ministry to prepare guidelines for police to follow during press briefings in relation to criminal cases. The ministry has three months prepare a detailed manual.
The top police officers of each state and the National Human Rights Commission have been directed to submit suggestions to the home ministry within a month and the next hearing will be in January, a bench led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said, underlining the need to sensitise police personnel.
“Administration of justice is affected by ‘media trials’. Need to decide at which stage (of investigation) details should be disclosed. This is a very important issue because it involves interests of victim and accused. It also involves the interest of the public at large… media report on crime-related matters involves many aspects of public interest,” the court said.
“At a basic level… fundamental right to speech and expression is directly involved in the context of both the media’s right to portray and broadcast ideas and news… but we should not allow ‘media trial’. People have the right to access information. But, if important evidence, is revealed during the investigation, the investigation can also be affected,” the court argued.
The top court was hearing a petition relating to a 2017 instruction on the same subject; the court then had asked the government to frame rules for police briefings keeping in mind the rights of the accused and the victim, and to ensure those of both sides are not prejudiced or violated in any way. The court had then given six weeks to produce a draft report.
“The accused, whose conduct is under investigation, is entitled to a fair and unbiased investigation…. at every stage, every accused is entitled to presumption of innocence. Media reportage that implicates an accused is unfair,” the court said today.
In March, the Chief Justice had urged journalists to “maintain standards of accuracy, impartiality and responsibility in reporting” and said, “… selective quoting of speeches and judgments has become a matter of concern. This practice has a tendency to distort public’s understanding of important legal issues. Judges’ decisions are often complex and nuanced, and selective quoting can give the impression a judgment means something different from what the judge intended.”
A month before that the court had ordered police in Maharashtra to further investigate an alleged assault case.
On behalf of the government, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati today assured the court the government will frame and release guidelines regarding media briefings by the police. “The government will inform the court about it…” she said.
An annoyed Supreme Court emphasised the fact “media trials” violate the privacy of a victim or complainant, and that this is concerning if they are a minor. “Victim’s privacy cannot be affected. We also have to take care of the rights of the accused.”
“How should police be trained for media briefings? What steps has the Government of India taken (regarding) our 2014 instruction?” the court asked. Senior lawyer, Gopal Shankaranarayan, an amicus curiae, referred to salacious media reports surrounding the Aarushi case and agreed, “We cannot stop media from reporting but police need to be sensitive.”