The Bombay High Court on Monday held that trial by media interferes with the criminal investigation by Police and issued a slew of directions to the media to be followed while reporting incidents involving suicide and death of persons.
The Court also held that electronic media would have to adhere to the guidelines of reporting issued by Press Council of India till the time the electronic media formulates their own guidelines.
For the existing self-regulating mechanisms, the Court held that “self-regulation has no sanctity within the statutory framework.”
“Trial by media interferes with criminal investigation and runs counter to programme code under the Cable TV Act,” the Court ruled.
The Court further noted that certain elements of reporting by news channels, Times Now and Republic TV in relation the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput were contemptuous, but the Court refrained from initiating any action.
Similarly, the Court also opined that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had abrogated their statutory functions.
“Media should avoid discussion, debates relating to criminal investigation and should confine themselves to informative reports in such matters,” the Court said.
The Court in its judgment said that reporting on aspects relating to ongoing criminal investigation should be done in such a manner that it does not prejudice the rights of the accused and witnesses and after following the journalistic standards.
The judgment was delivered by a Bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni in a batch of public interest litigation (PIL) petitions filed against media trial in the wake of the reportage relating to suicide of Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput case.
The bench had reserved its judgment in the matter on November 6, 2020.
The Court in its judgment said that the media should refrain from the following while reporting:
– In death by suicide, to depict the victim as weak would create aspersions on the investigation;
– Reconstructing or recreating the crime scene or leaking any sensitive information;
– Publishing a confession alleged to have been made by accused to the Police without telling public that such confessions are inadmissible.
Investigating authorities, the Court underscored, are under no obligation to disclose information.
The petitioners had sought the Court’s intervention to frame guidelines for regulating electronic media for reporting ongoing criminal investigations while safeguarding media freedom. The Court during the hearing had enquired if the guidelines sought in the plea may interfere with the citizens’ Right to Know.
The Court had heard submissions made by a slew of lawyers with the hearing lasting for a month.
When the Court was informed during the hearing that there was no statutory body to regulate electronic media, it had directed the Union to respond why there is no such body when there is a Press council of India for print media.
The petitioners had informed the Court that even though there were self-regulating private bodies like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and National Broadcasting Federation (NBF), many news channels were not members of either of the associations and considered themselves exempted from following the programme code under the Cable and Television Network Regulation Act.
The Court had mused as to why the Ministry had exempted the electronic media from scrutiny. “Why should citizens come to court every time? It is not good for the media as well,” they retorted.
The Court had also come down heavily on news channels on their reportage in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, orally observing that they appeared to have disregarded basic norms and etiquette of journalism particularly while reporting on the suicide of a public figure.
They raised concerns on the kind of ‘investigative journalism’ being carried out by news channels
The Court enquired to the channels if it was their duty or obligation to supervise every investigation. They added that if the channels did report on an ongoing criminal investigation why did they not educate themselves on the provision of the criminal procedure code before putting out details.
When the channels argued that the Courts could intervene at a stage when the existing mechanisms fail, the Court responded by saying by that the damage would have already been done by then which would be irreparable.
As the arguments progressed, the Court had indicated that since the issue brought before them was unprecedented, they are in favour of issuing guidelines to curb media trial.