There is an undeniable synergy between media, democratic ideals, and the judiciary. Although media is assumed to restore democracy, in reality, it is far from doing its job. In the article, Mayannk Sharma explains the linkages between a well-functioning democracy and vigilant media. He highlights how media has failed to do its job since it’s too obsessed with improving television ratings. The same has led to media trials, which have further cast a shadow on the ‘actual’ trial.
By Mayannk Sharma, a first-year law student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.
Is Indian Media Devoid of Democratic Ideals?
Before beginning the discourse on contemporary media and its detriments, it is vital to understand how our forefathers imagined democracy. This will help explain how media trials are anti-everything that the Indian Constitution and democracy stand for. The piece will further emphasise media trials in India vis-à-vis some recent developments, which affected the social and legal sphere.
Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar defined democracy as
“a form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.”
Dr Ambedkar was a revolutionary social and political thinker. He also championed democratic ideals. At this juncture of participatory democracy, his words mean a lot more, as media plays a crucial role in linking, shaping, and influencing the political opinions of the masses.
It’s only through speech that democracies can survive, and hence every revolution needs to be spoken about, and its message needs to be disseminated.
Media and democracy are intrinsically correlated, to the extent that one is incomplete without the other. The present scenario dictates that many factors affect democracy, including public opinion, participation, and the freedom of speech and thought.
Democracy has undoubtedly laid down the foundation of ideals envisaged by the country’s founding fathers. However, it is also upon institutions like the judiciary, executive and legislature to pursue the imagined idea of India. Media, often called the fourth pillar, is as much part of the state as the other three.
It is a task to analyse the effects of media on democracy since it was brought into the mainstream through an empirical lens and further ascertain how it shaped society.
The ‘Battle for Seattle’ protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 1999, for instance, was hailed as a movement that championed democracy and social justice. It resisted the neo-liberal ideas of globalisation, and was organised through the internet, also referred to as ‘new media’.
This shows how media is essential to sustain a democratic atmosphere beyond the bounds of the country.
However, since then, twenty-one years have passed, and the media has gone through a radical transformation. The internet has become so prevalent that virtually anyone with a decent network can be an informant or ‘journalist’. Hence it’s essential to talk about the transformation of media from disseminating news to creating biased narratives.
Polarisation of News and Media Trials
The access to the internet also helped polarisation that crept in as right-wing and the left-wing press. It would be naïve to think that media has sustained itself as a textbook non-partisan entity. To say that it exists without biases would be an irony.
The ideas of two sides, left or right, is now stretched to their extremities and subverted from their true essence. By conforming to a political, ideological, and at times monetary bias, the ethics are thrown out of the window. In propagating unsubstantiated and misleading claims, the media only benefits itself and a bunch of corporates.
News channels often stage narratives, adjudicating on cases that are sub-judice, acting as a judge, jury and executioner. This performance of media is also called a ‘Media trial’. According to Ray Surette,
“Media trials are defined as certain regional or national news ‘events’ in which the criminal justice system is co-opted by the media as a source of high drama and entertainment.”
Not only do these media trials subvert the role of the legal system, but they also have societal impacts that distort public opinion and malign public perception.
Research has suggested that cases involving politicians and celebrities have much more likelihood of media coverage resulting in aggrandised media trials.
How Media Trial Cast a Shadow on Judicial Verdicts?
India mainly follows the adversarial legal system with some elements of the inquisitorial system. This means that the court acts as an indifferent referee between the prosecution and the defence in most cases.
With the speed at which a trial proceeds in India, the Indian media gets enough leeway and time to create inaccurate scenarios and half-baked conclusions. While the court is considered unaffected by media propaganda, the judges and lawyers are as human as any of us.
While judges may dissociate themselves from such coverage, it’s hard to escape from media propaganda subconsciously. Especially since it envelopes us through all mediums, and in cases that have garnered significant media attention, it’s even more difficult.
A study conducted by Walden University’s Dr VVLN Sastry theorised that a positive correlation existed between media trials and court verdicts in India, thereby affecting the country’s justice system.
Through this research, Dr Sastry argued that the Indian criminal justice system had remained unfettered for long as the judges presiding over a case did not pay much heed to media theatrics.
However, at the same time, as per the same study, which surveyed 450 practising advocates, the dissociation is perhaps only in theory. One of the questions that the survey asked was, ‘Can the public media be used to influence Judges’ perception of a case under trial?’
About 430 of the 450 advocates’ strongly agreed’ that the public media could influence judges’ opinion if the case is under trial. While twelve advocates ‘agreed.’ And about eight advocates ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with this proposition.
Another critical insight from the study revealed that out of the 450 advocates interviewed, 312 ‘strongly agreed’ that based on their experience, judges tend to mete out harsher punishments, often influenced by public demand. Eighty-two advocates ‘agreed’ with this proposition.
These results simply indicate that media often permeates the courts and its high walls. Probably, the Indian Judiciary is not as invincible as it is perceived to be.
According to the ‘cultivation theory’ of media, media exerts long-term psychological and ideological impacts on the public, which are indirect and develop gradually through continuous indoctrination.
This theory further assessed that individuals subjected to higher levels of exposure are likely to have their social realities affected and their extensive view of the world impacted.
This cultivation theory forms the very basis of trial by media.
Media trials often target the critical reasoning abilities of individuals, leading them to draw assumptions and inferences. This media often uses such theatrics to spread propaganda, though not directly all the time, but it is most prevalent in television.
Even though the television predates the 1950s, it permeated the social fabric of society, affecting the ‘standard of living’ in a household. Especially now in tier two and three cities in India, television is an effective medium for infotainment.
In the last ten years, we have witnessed plenty of media trials. Such derogatory and hateful programming on Indian mainstream television often snowballs into libel and slander.
Such programming has now become common parlance, where the courts have to intervene and pass injunction orders to stall programmes that could amount to severe harm.
These developments highlight the grim reality of media houses, calling for an immediate distinction between media trials and the Freedom of the Press, which is enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. The constant abuse of freedom granted to the media by the Constitution is an affront to democratic ideals.
Media Trial of the Decade and Its Implications
The death of a famous Hindi film actor Sushant Singh Rajput, prima facie reported as a suicide, is a vivid reminder that media trials are detrimental to democracy.
Media trials only confirm that unverified speculation can cause a rift between public opinion and the judicial process, thereby constructing the ‘accused’ and a false narrative.
The Sushant Singh Rajput’s death coverage is a reminder of the O.J. Simpson Case 1994.
The latter is deemed ‘the trial of the century’, wherein a black American Footballer was prosecuted for a double murder of his estranged wife and her friend. The interest of the media and the public amounted to an affected judgement and jury.
It was one of the highest viewed televised court coverage with a record of 5.5 million views per day. The court set him free after the trial was completed. But many experts touted that media played a huge role in disseminating fake news and even negatively affecting the trial’s outcome.
Undoubtedly, O.J. Simpson, being a prominent celebrity of the time, added to the trial’s theatrical flair. However, irrespective of one’s credentials, media did not play a non-partisan role and failed to live up to its ethos leading to the ‘Simpsonization of Domestic News’.
When compared with the O.J. Simpson case, the Sushant Singh Rajput’s case entails striking similarities.
The accused, the actor’s girlfriend and an actress herself, allegedly abetted the actor’s suicide. Despite a bunch of investigative agencies involved in the case, she was constantly vilified by news channels. The insane media coverage around her life and the deceased triggered real-life repercussions with a virtual character assassination without conclusive proof.
Most mainstream channels reported accused of a drug scandal, and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) investigated the actress and her brother. The courts acted promptly, and she was remanded to judicial custody as soon as NCB filed a First Information Report under the relevant sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985.
Despite the NCB’s investigation, the media kept branding her as the ‘witch who drove her boyfriend to suicide’. The press destroyed her reputation by assassinating her character, all based on their own fabrication.
Finally, when the NCB arrested the actress and her brother, she was released after spending a month in Byculla jail. And the media continued to milk Rajput’s death for selling a reality that never existed.
Of course, there are legal remedies available for the accused to exercise against these scrupulous and slandering remarks, but the damage had been done.
Such cases emphasise a need for legislation to forbid media trials. The courts must come down heavily on media houses that operate as ‘kangaroo courts’—mostly running on loud story-telling without any actual juridical bindings. Media trials also bereave the suspect of their constitutionally mandated right, the ‘right to a fair trial’.
The ‘presumption of innocence’ is a principle followed in law and is instrumental in protecting against a wrongful conviction. ‘Presumption of innocence’ must also be followed by media organisations to provide citizens with unbiased views.
Though the media acts as an ombudsman and a platform for public opinion by highlighting issues of public importance to the legislature to aid in policy formulation, it has also undergone sensationalisation to garner TRP ratings and gossip, thereby straying from its primary job of reporting facts.
Author T.E. Carter in her book ‘I Stop Somewhere’ wrote,
“The court of public opinion moves much faster than the law.”
This stand absolutely true in the light of recent events. The media must serve as a democratic space by shaping public opinion towards the collective good of society.
The press should espouse its code of laws and ethics, social responsibility, and credibility by not interfering in complex matters of the court so early on, which require delicate interpretation and a thorough investigation.
One cannot emphasise enough the need for uniform but liberal rules to govern media. Courts could make such rules under a liberal hand, such that there’s no interference from the Indian Government.
Apart from that, to effectively hinder media trials, the civilians themselves must verify and identify polarising facets of the news. Viewers must also call for a systemic boycott of news channels that indulge in fake news and slander. The same would discourage scrupulous outlets from conducting media trials in the first place.
 Rajasekhariah, A.M. and Jayaraj, H., 1991. Political Philosophy of Dr BR Ambedkar. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 52(3) 370,357-375.
 Kahn, R. and Kellner, D., 2004. New media and internet activism: from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to blogging. New media & society, 6(1) 87,87-95.
 The terms Right Wing and Left Wing have a French origin. Their etymology draws back to the French revolution of 1789, referring to the seating arrangement around the French National Assembly. The people seated on the right-side favoured the Monarchic’ Ancien regime’ while those on the left supported the formation of a Secular Republic.
 Surette, R., 1989. Media trials. Journal of criminal justice, 17(4) 293,293-308.
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