Media has been titled as the fourth pillar of a modern democracy, with the power to acquaint the masses with every drop of information available and subsequently, mould public opinion. The Indian media has gradually developed as the primary disseminator over the past decades with innumerable newspapers, magazines and other forms of newsgathering available in vernacular languages. News channels, infotainment apps, and the internet nexus have augmented the reach of media.
Mass media has transformed from being a medium of communicating news to a symbol of change, creating an unprecedented responsibility on it to cautiously air any information. The American law provides for sequestering the jury and the judge during a trial to prevent them from getting influenced from media trials. However, there is no such law in India.
Media has transformed into a ‘Janta ki Adalat’, with media trials not only representing a biased opinion before the verdict is declared but also creating a compulsion on the courts to resolve a case in accordance with this opinion. Whether it is the infamous 2-G Spectrum scam, coal allocation scam, the recent Lalu Prasad Yadav’s benami transaction scandal, or MallyaGate, the media put these cases under the public guillotine prior to completion of their trials.
In Aarushi Talwar murder case, the media branded her parents as being guilty of her murder when the case was still under-trial. The thin line between ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’ is easily crossed which jeopardises a trial in process. It is extremely difficult to prove that a judge has been influenced by the news. Similarly, it is equally difficult to prove that the judge hasn’t been keeping a track of the news prior or during the trial.
As the famous saying goes ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, the unhindered freedom of speech given to the media is required to be heedfully exercised. The ‘self-imposed’ code that prevents journalists from reporting sub-judice or under-trial matters has been long forgotten. Conducting parallel trial of sub judice matters hinders with a judge's ability to decide a matter on its merits and the judge that decides against this 'public or media verdict' is termed as biased or corrupt.
The constant scrutiny and updates on a sub judice matter creates a clouded environment, leaving the case in a perilous state. The Delhi High Court has also observed that “media tends to influence judges by subconsciously creating a pressure” when questioned about the controversial documentary on Nirbhaya gangrape case.
When every piece of information broadcasted and published by a media channel has the power to influence the decision of a judge, there is not much room for experimenting and trial and error. It is, therefore, for administration of justice that any publication prejudicial in nature having the capacity to affect the mind of a sitting judge requires to be impeded. Journalism on sub judice matters and criticism of the way judiciary administers justice often borderlines at contempt of court.
Media wields enormous powers that can subliminally affect a case. This often raises the question whether media, through its participative journalism, has become voice of masses or the noise that subconsciously sways the judge presiding over a matter that it has publicly tried prior to its conclusion in the court.