HC Says Media Trials Amount To Contempt Of Court; Frames Rules

Mumbai: The Bombay High Court said on Monday that media trials amounted to contempt of court and urged the press not to cross the proverbial “Lakshman Rekha” as it found coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case by some news channels as “contemptuous”. A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni held that the press, particularly Republic TV and Times Now, “crossed boundaries” in their reportage on the death of Bollywood actor Rajput, who was found hanging in his apartment in suburban Bandra on June 14, 2020.

The bench said “the two channels started a vicious campaign of masquerading as the crusaders of truth and justice and the saviours of the situation.” It went on to say that some of their reportage amounted to contempt of court but restrained from taking any action against them. The court also issued a set of guidelines on reporting of suicides or ongoing investigations into sensitive cases at it urged the press not to cross the proverbial “Lakshman Rekha” (a line not to be overstepped) on their coverage.

The bench delivered its verdict on a bunch of PILs seeking guidelines or a statutory mechanism to restrain press coverage on the events and probe following Rajput’s death. The pleas had also alleged that some TV channels had been running a negative campaign against the Mumbai police that was probing the 34-year-old actor’s death before it was transferred to the CBI.

The court said that while in some prominent cases such as the deaths of Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal and Nitish Katara, the accused persons could have escaped unpunished if not for media intervention, the press must not be “overzealous” in its reportage. The HC held the Mumbai police could not be accused by the electronic media of any wrongdoing.

“We need to remind that every journalist/reporter has an overriding duty to the society of educating the masses with fair, accurate, trustworthy and responsiblereports relating to reportable events/incidents and above all to the standards of his/her profession,” the bench said. “Thus, the temptation to sensationalise should be resisted,” it said.

The court said the existing self-regulatory mechanisms such as the National Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) or the National Broadcasters’ Federation (NBF), that attempted to regulate the content of the electronic media, could not take the character of a statutory mechanism. The bench said while the press had its right to free speech and expression, the same could not infringe upon the rights of a citizen.

“As it is, dignity of an individual, even after he is dead, cannot be left to the mercy of the journalists/ reporters,” the HC said. The bench issued a slew of guidelines for media houses to follow while reporting on suicides or ongoing investigations into sensitive cases.

It said the guidelines aimed to “remedy some ills that have so longremained unchecked for the lack of strict enforcement of the regulatory control mechanism.” The guidelines mandate that the media refrain from printing or displaying anything that depict someone who has committed suicide as one having had a “weak character,” or printing or broadcasting anything that might cause prejudice to an ongoing probe. The press must not hold interviews with witnesses, or analyse victims’ and witnesses’ statements that might be admissible as evidence in a court.

It must not publish confessional statements of accused persons at the trial stage, and it must not publish or broadcast photos of accused persons or criticise probe agencies on the basis of “half baked” information, the HC said. It must not recreate crime scenes or predict future course of action of an ongoing probe, the HC said.

The bench said the press must not indulge in “character assassination” of any individual and that it must not violate guidelines of the Cable TV Act. The petitioners had said that the contempt of court proceedings must be initiated for any breaches by the press from the time of registration of a case.

The HC, however, said that such proceedings could be initiated only after a case reached the stage of judicial proceedings and not at the stage of the FIR. The PILs, filed through senior counsel Aspi Chinoy, by activists, private citizens and a group of retired police officers, had also sought that the TV news channels be stopped from conducting a media trial into the case.

At the time, the bench had asked the Union government if there existed any statutory mechanism to regulate the content broadcast by the electronic media akin to the regulatory mechanism exercised by the Press Council of India (PCI) for the print media. The bench had also asked at the time if there existed any vacuum in law on the issue.

The Union government had said that there was no void in the existing legal framework on regulating the content broadcast by the electronic media. Appearing for the Centre, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh had said there existed adequate statutory as well as self-regulatory mechanism for the media, including news channels, to follow while printing or broadcasting any news items.

Private TV news channels, that are a party to the case, had argued that the self-regulatory mechanism was adequate and that no new statutory mechanism or guidelines were required to control the media. Following weeks of exhaustive arguments, the bench had on November 6 last reserved its verdict on the PILs seeking that the press, particularly news channels, be restrained in their reportage on the death of Rajput.

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