Trial by Media – Everything You Need to Know

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Media is recognized as the fourth pillar of Democracy after Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. Therefore, to ensure democracy, there is a need for free and independent media. However, these days the role of media is often criticized, especially in reporting criminal matters. The media sometimes go beyond its domain and starts interfering with the functions of the court. Often the media have gone a step further and published information based on mere assumptions and suspicion about the line of investigation by the official agencies to vigorously report on the issue on a day to day basis and comment on the evidence without ascertaining the factual matrix. Such reporting has brought an undue pressure in the course of fair investigation and trial. The media in this manner is conducting a parallel investigation and trial; and has already foretold its decision, thereby, creating a pressure on the investigation agencies. In this context, let’s make a quick examination of the Trial by Media in India.

This topic of “Trial by Media – Everything You Need to Know” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Mind map of Trial by Media

Media: Meaning and Importance

  • Media is the communication outlets or the tools used to store and deliver information or data.
  • Media can be seen as a communication mechanism, ‘in the middle’, that conveys aspects of the world and society to the receiver/audience.
  • Media plays an important role in society and is known as “watchdog”, it occupies an important role in shaping the mood of the public.
  • The media being the fourth pillar of the Indian democracy, in all its might, provides a full proof picture into the working of the government, thus making an indelible impression on the citizens.
  • It provides the information, adopts its own point of view, and thus works as a giving force to public debate.
  • It stands as a permanent means of communication and control between the people and their elected representatives in parliament and government.
  • In recent years, with the growth of cable television, local radio, newspapers and all forms of social media, the range and reach of media have increased exponentially thereby continuously expanding readership and viewership. This has given our media providers an unprecedented role in shaping popular opinion and references.
  • The basic purpose of journalism is to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate and unbiased manner.
  • For achieving this objective, the media is expected to conduct itself in keeping with certain universally recognized norms of conduct that have evolved or maybe evolved by different societies suited to their requirements such as
  1. Honesty and fairness in reporting facts.
  2. The duty to seek the views of the subject of any critical reportage in advance of publication.
  3. The duty to correct factual errors.
  4. The duty not to falsify pictures or to use them misleadingly.
  5. The duty to provide an opportunity to reply to critical opinions as well as to critical factual reportage.
  6. Need for the appearance as well as the reality of objectivity.
  7. Prohibition to receive consideration for reporting or not reporting.
  8. The duty to respect privacy.
  9. The duty to distinguish between facts and opinions.
  10. The duty not to discriminate or to inflame hatred on grounds of race, nationality, religion, or gender.
  11. The duty to refrain from mentioning the race, religion or nationality of the subjects of news stories unless relevant to the story. Some codes call for coverage, which promotes tolerance.
  12. The duty not to use dishonest means to obtain information, unless it is in the public interest.
  13. The duty not to endanger people.
  14. The duty to maintain general standards of decency and taste.
  15. The duty not to divulge confidential sources.
  16. The duty not to prejudge the guilt of an accused and to publish the dismissal of charges against or acquittal of anyone about whom the paper previously had reported that charges had been filed or that a trial had commenced.

What is meant by Trial by Media?

  • Trial by Media generally refers to a practice where the media start doing its own investigation and forms a public opinion against the accused even before a trial commences.
  • In this way, it prejudices the trial, thereby infringing the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Thus, the accused that must be considered as innocent until proven guilty is now presumed as guilty thereby violating his rights.
  • Trial by media is still a debatable term and is basically used to denote a facet of media activism.

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Effects of Trial by Media on Society

Social Change

  • Social change is the transformation of culture and social organization/structure over time.
  • As we are aware, the society has been never static in the modern world and the social, political, economic and cultural changes occur constantly.
  • It happens everywhere, but the rate of change varies from place to place.
  • Social change is sometimes intentional, but often unplanned.
  • There are various causes of social change. These causes include
  1. Invention
    • Inventions produce new products, ideas, and social patterns.
  2. Discovery
    • Discovery is finding something that has never been found before, or finding something new in something that already exists.
  3. Diffusion
    • Diffusion is the spreading of ideas and objects to other societies.
    • This would involve trading, migration, and mass communication.
    • The ‘mass media’ is a vital factor in the speed of social change. It permits rapid diffusion of ideas, making these manifest in the private and relaxing environs of the home, where audiences are at their most susceptible.
    • Media play a significant role to influence some sectors of society and impact social activities like agitation, people participate etc.. Thus, it has a significant effect on the social and judicial administration.
    • A good example of social change is the change in outlook towards various social crimes of the society.

Change in outlook towards various social crimes

  • Unlike before, India because of its transparent and vibrant media, now galvanizing the country to swiftly adopt new legislative measures and catapulting the issue of violence against women in India into the international spotlight.
  • Although assault and rape cases have made India infamous for its high volume of crimes against women, the reaction to this particular incident was much different from before. It is quite clear from the NIrbhaya case.
  • The governmental and societal responses represent this case social change, as indicated by changing attitudes towards violence against women in India.

Legal Aspects of Trial by Media

  • Media has wide-ranging roles in the society.
  • Freedom of the media is the freedom of people as they should be informed of public matters. It is thus needless to emphasize that a free and a healthy press is indispensable to the functioning of democracy.
  • In a democratic set up there has to be active participation of people in all affairs of their community and the state.
  • It is their right to be kept informed about the current political, social, economic and cultural life as well as the burning topics and important issues of the day to enable them to consider forming a broad opinion in which they are being managed, tackled and administered by the government and their functions.
  • The trial is essentially a process to be carried out by the courts and is a word which is associated with the process of justice.
  • The trial by media is definitely an undue interference in the process of justice delivery.
  • Media plays a vital role in moulding the opinion of the society and it is capable of changing the whole viewpoint through which people perceive various events.
  • Thus the media trial means to frame a strong opinion in the eyes of the people, whether the accused is guilty or not though its coverage of the event and its opinion, before the judicial trial.
  • It is the essential component of any judicial system that the accused should receive a fair trial.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

  • The right to freedom of speech and expression contained in Article 19 of the constitution. However the freedom is not absolute as it is bound by the sub-clause (2) of the same article. Also, It does not embrace the freedom to commit contempt of court.

Right to a Fair Trial

  • Right to a fair trial is safeguarded by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, along with Article 14 of The Indian Constitution.
  • Balancing one’s right to freedom of speech and expression is the right of an individual to live with dignity.
  • In Zahira Habibullah Sheikh V. State of Gujarat and Ors, the Supreme Court held that the concept of fair trial teaches and energizes other aspects of the law.
  • A fair trial requires removal of bias or discrimination for or against the accused and the witness.
  • This right to a fair trial can also be violated if the media use such language when reporting a problem that can have an effect on a judge’s brain or in some way affect the judicial process.
  • In today’s times, the media have started to label and blame the accused with the ultimate goal of sensationalizing news items and increasing the news channels commercial popularity.

Freedom of Media

  • The tension between the courts and media revolves around two general concerns- the first is that there should be no “trial by media” and second is that it is not for the press and anyone else to prejudice the case. Justice demands that people should be tried by courts of law and not be pilloried by the media.
  • Freedom of the press is a subset of the freedom of expression and speech enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution. Therefore, media are also subject to all restrictions imposed on private individuals.
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and intervention and communicates information and ideas through any media irrespective of boundaries.
  • In the same sense, the term press freedom was not expressly used in conjunction with Article 19, but freedom of speech and expression involves freedom of the press.

Interference with Court Proceedings

  • According to the 200th Report of the Law Commission of India, the media exercises unrestricted, or rather uncontrolled independence in publishing information on the criminal case and biases the opinion of the public and those responsible for adjudicating the accused guilty.
  • In fact, even if the individual is finally convicted by the judge, it becomes almost impossible for the accused to prefer appeals. Strong and excessive media hype will misguide the fair trial and lead to the defendant being depicted as a criminal.

Contempt of Court

  • On the off chance, if the media’s coverage about an accused or perpetrator conflict with the court’s judicial process, then it leads to undue interference with the “justice process” which in turn gives rise to the media’s contempt of court proceedings.
  • The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 defines contempt as scandalizing, prejudicing the trial and the hindering administration of justice.
  • In the case of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr, It was observed that “When litigation is pending before a court, no one shall speak on it in such a way that there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the prosecution of the suit, such as impact on the defendant, the witnesses or bias against a party to the case in general. Even if the person who makes the statement honestly believe it is valid, it is still a Court contempt.

Regulatory Measures

  • There are various ways to regulate the media like the Press Council of India (PCI) was established to preserve the freedom of the press and to improve the standards of news reporting in India.
  • Under the Press Council Act 1978, if someone believes that a news agency has committed any professional misconduct, the PCI can, emphasize the importance of accuracy and fairness and encourages the press to ―eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, misleading or distorted material.
  • The norms urge that any criticism of the judiciary should be published with great caution. These norms further recommend that reporters should avoid one-sided inferences, and attempt to maintain an impartial and sober tone at all times. But significantly, these norms cannot be legally enforced, and largely observed in the breach.
  • Lastly, the PCI also has criminal contempt powers to restrict the publication of prejudicial media reports. However, the PCI can only exercise its contempt powers for pending civil or criminal cases.

Limitations on Freedom of Media

  • The media is under the duty to ensure that any information disseminated to the public is accurate. Implicitly, limits are also levied according to Article 19 (2) of India’s Constitution the form of:
    1. Right to integrity
    2. Right to privacy
    3. Limitations imposed by way of contempt of court

Way Forward

  • It is recommended that the publication showing of anything prejudicial towards the accused should be prohibited.

Prior Restraint:

  • Under its authority, The courts may make these orders banning disclosure during the course of the trial for a temporary period, thereby reasonably restricting the freedom provided under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Contempt of Courts Act, 1917:

  • The inaccuracy of the coverage of the proceedings shall be disregarded only if it involves serious interference with the administration of justice. Section 4 of the Act gives protection to the person making the publication if it is fair and accurate. Therefore, media outlets should be varied for the accuracy of the information.

The request to delay publication:

  • It can be passed by the court and will serve as a protective measure to protect the press from contempt proceedings.

Right to approach the Supreme Court and High Court:

  • The griever could file written submissions in the respective courts if the media publications concerning the trial prejudiced him.

Recommendations by 200th Report of Law Commission:

  • It has recommended to bring cases related to Free Speech versus a Fair Trial Under Criminal Procedure (Amendments to the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971)
  • A law to debar the media from reporting anything prejudicial to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, from the time of arrest for investigation and trial.
  • They have also recommended that journalists need to be trained in certain aspects of the law relating to freedom of speech in Art.


  • A democratic society’s basic essence lies in free speech prevailing one’s ideas, propagating information and knowledge, debate on the topic, expressing their views.
  • Media acts as a watchdog and functions as a forum for taking the voice of the people to the attention of government and the legislature.
  • However, Keeping its larger impact on the society and the judiciary, Media should restrain from forming an opinion by conducting its own parallel investigation and trial.

Practice Question For Mains

  1. The media trial undeniably perverts the responsibility of the media and contravenes the fair outline of legal limits. Discuss (250 Words)
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