The Bombay High Court on Thursday asked the Centre and its Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) why it should not frame guidelines on media coverage of sensitive criminal matters and ongoing investigations, and whether “excessive” reporting by press amounted to interference in the administration of justice under the Contempt of Courts Act.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing PILs by eight former police officers from Maharashtra, as well as activists, lawyers and NGOs, seeking restraining orders against “media trial” in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case.
The high court on October 23 had remarked that the media has become “highly polarised” and that journalists were neutral and responsible in the past.
On Thursday, senior counsel Aspi Chinoy, representing eight former police officers, submitted that there had been blatant violation of rights of various persons by the news channels while reporting on the death case. He said that the channels had resorted to pre-judging and conducted ‘irresponsible’ coverage of the actor’s death case, and that it was affecting administration of justice and fundamental rights such as right to fair trial and presumption of innocence until proven guilty guaranteed under article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Chinoy further submitted that the media had over-stepped statutory framework of the Cable TV Regulation Act by transmitting content which amounted to contempt of Court and though the Central Government, which was empowered under the Cable TV Act and the Programme Code for TV channels laid down under it failed to take suo motu cognisance of the ‘media trial’ in Rajput’s death case while the coverage by certain errant news channels was ongoing for over two months.
In view of this, he said that the robust mechanism as claimed by authorities was insufficient and hence the Court should frame guidelines
After hearing submissions, the CJ Datta-led bench made queries and sought clarifications from the Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh representing the Central government on various issues pertaining to the case.
“The whole purpose of investigation is collection of evidence by the investigation agency to opine whether the accused is triable or not….and whether he can be put under arrest… This is our prima facie view. If there is excessive reporting, that can put an accused on guard, and he may resort to destroying evidence or absconding,” the bench observed.
The bench added, “If the person is actually innocent, the excessive media reporting can tarnish his image. If the media identifies that a person is a very vital witness, he could be won over, threatened, or he could be even physically threatened so that he does not give evidence.”
The court, referring to past decisions, said that judges should not be influenced by media coverage. “But what about the police officer? He would not be influenced? And thereby start hounding up an innocent person and he may lose track (of investigation) altogether. If the police officer is competent and proceeds in own way and if the media finds that their reportage is not followed, starts maligning him. Is this welcome in society governed by law?”
Referring to the submission made by news channels that the coverage was part of investigative journalism, the bench said, “What is investigative journalism -to lay bare the truth. Is there any law which says that whatever investigation agency collected as evidence should be kept before the public? Where is the obligation for the investigating officer to disclose evidence?”
The bench further sought to know when there is an ongoing procedure before the court of law, if there was an obligation on the investigating officer to disclose information. “How does a post-mortem report come to the media unless it is leaked? Therefore, should we lay down guidelines about trial by media?” it said.
The Court further said, “While we would like the media not to cross boundaries, even we would stick within boundaries as the real issue is when a police report is yet to be filed, whether media coverage would tend to interfere with administration of justice.”
Seeking clarifications on its queries from the Central government and others within one week, the bench posted further hearing to November 6.