4 Feb 2011

Judicial Safeguards Against "Trial by Media"

While affirming the conviction of Manu Sharma in the highly televised Jessica Lal Murder Trial, the Supreme Court made extensive remarks against the country being turned into one where the trial is by media. In the concluding remarks, the Court declared that "Every effort should be made by the print and electronic media to ensure that the distinction between trial by media and informative media should  always be maintained. Trial  by media should be avoided particularly, at a stage when the suspect is entitled to the constitutional protections. Invasion of his rights is bound to be held as impermissible."

On a similar note we have a recent paper from Arpan Banerjee titled "Judicial Safeguards Againstby Media': Should Blasi’s 'Checking Value' Theory Apply in India?" where the author has made an extensive survey (through cited cases and statement of illustrated luminaries) where the trial has been significantly affected by the media coverage. Reflecting on the fine balance required to be maintained between the rights of an accused to fair trial as against the freedom of press, the author speaks unabashed on media coverage prejudicing the trial and thus invalidating its outcome, thereon going to apply jurisprudential concepts to ponder over the key issue as to whether "courts should be lenient towards the media". In all, the paper makes an interesting reading to reflect upon the state of affairs on the issue in the country.

The abstract of the paper reads as under;
In India, the free press-free trial debate assumes intriguing dimensions. For years, India’s criminal justice system has been in a dysfunctional state, bogged down by endemic corruption. Yet, following the liberalization of India’s economy, many independent news channels have been born. One consequence of this institutional imbalance has been the pre-emptive news coverage  of pending trials. The media has exposed attempts by the rich and powerful to subvert justice. 
In this article, I examine Indian precedents regarding the application of two possible safeguards against prejudicial media coverage — the quashing of a trial and penalties for contempt of court. I submit that the Indian judiciary has consistently refrained from taking punitive action against the press for making prejudicial remarks, preferring to issue token proclamations against a “trial by media” instead. However, I argue that the judiciary ought to be more assertive and at least contemplate the use of mild sanctions against the media. Here, I question the feasibility of following Vincent Blasi’s “checking value” theory — which provides a strong theoretical justification for prejudicial media coverage —in India.

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