‘Media Trials Interfere With Administration of Justice’: Bombay HC

Some of Republic & Times Now’s reporting on Sushant Singh Rajput found to be contemptuous, HC refrains from acting.

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Bombay HC slams media for reporting on Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and hounding of Rhea Chakraborty.
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The Bombay High Court on Monday, 18 January, came down strongly on the sensational manner in which the media reports on high-profile criminal investigations like the Sushant Singh Rajput case, criticising media channels, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the self-regulation mechanism that currently exists for electronic media.

“Trial by media interferes with criminal investigations by the police and runs counter to the Programme Code under the Cable TV Act and Rules,” the bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and Justice GS Kulkarni observed.

The high court has laid down a number of guidelines to be followed by the media when reporting on criminal investigations and cases, so that they do not prejudice the rights of the accused as well as witnesses in such matters.

The judges also held that some of the reporting by Republic and Times Now regarding the death of Sushant Singh Rajput was “prima facie contemptuous”, but refrained from passing any orders for taking this forward. 

They also noted that some of the coverage of the Mumbai Police in connection with this was "unfair" given their inquiries were at a preliminary stage.

Guidelines for Reporting on High-Profile Criminal Cases

Over the course of extensive hearings last year, the high court had been taken through the existing mechanisms for self-regulation of the print and electronic media, as well as the central government-madated Programme Code under the Cable TV Rules of 1994 (tied in with the Cable TV Regulation Act of 1995).

The judges had scathing things to say about the way these mechanisms currently functioned, noting that there were no proper guidelines for reporting on death by suicide in the electronic media – till such time as these are framed, news channels will need to follow the Press Council of India’s guidelines for newspapers.

In any case, the judges observed that “self regulation has no sanctity within the statutory framework”; however, this statutory framework (ie, the Programme Code) was itself not being adhered to.

The high court held that the I&B Ministry had “abdicated its responsibilities” when it came to making sure channels followed the Programme Code.

When it comes to reporting on a criminal case, the media should report on those items and issues which are informative and in the public interest. They should not focus on debates and speculation which they think the public needs to know.

The media should also ensure that their reporting does not prejudice or harm the interests of the accused or the witnesses in a criminal investigation/case, the judges said.

To ensure that media reportage of criminal investigations does not turn into media trials which would “interfere with the administration of justice” (and therefore amount to criminal contempt of court), the judges decided that certain guidelines were in order for future reporting.

The key guidelines are as follows:

  • Don’t publish confessions alleged to be made by an accused to the police (not a magistrate) without letting the public know that such evidence is inadmissible in court.
  • Don’t pronounce on the merits of the case, ie, pre-judge the accused as guilty till the trial is completed.
  • Don’t reconstruct the crime scene and try to get potential witnesses to provide details on record before their statements are recorded for a trial.
  • Don’t speculate on or predict the course of action required to complete the investigation.
  • When reporting on death by suicide, don’t suggest the person was of weak character or speculate about the reasons for their death.
  • Don’t indulge in character assassination of the accused, the victim or witnesses in the case.

The judges also had some pointers for the police when it comes to high-profile criminal investigations and cases. They said that investigative agencies are entitled to maintain secrecy about the investigation and are not required to divulge information in response to media queries.

At the same time, they endorsed a suggestion made by senior advocate Arvind Datar for the police to appoint special officers to conduct briefings to the press on significant cases where they could provide information deemed necessary to provide to the public – provided they did not release any confidential information.

What Was This Case About?

A number of petitions had been filed in the Bombay High Court nearly six months ago seeking guidelines for “ethical reporting and responsible journalism,” in light of the sensationalist reporting on the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, including the hounding of his ex-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty.

One PIL had been filed by several retired IPS officers who complained that the reputation of the Mumbai Police was being besmirched by several media channels, while others were filed by filmmakers, lawyers and NGOs.

The judges had at several points during the hearing questioned the kind of reporting being done by channels like Republic TV, with the judges commenting on how they had made themselves “the investigator, prosecutor and judge” and asking how their debates demanding the arrest of Rhea could be called investigative journalism.

“Is this part of investigative journalism? Asking the public about their opinion on who should be arrested?” the bench had asked the lawyer for Republic TV.

The bench reserved judgment in November 2020, and finally pronounced its verdict now.

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