An important directive this week by retired Supreme Court judge R.V Raveendran, chairperson of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) urging news channels not to depict accused people as guilty while allegations against them were still being investigated has far reaching implications for India’s burgeoning electronic news media.
The order by the NBSA, an independent body of the News Broadcasters Association mandated to adjudicate complaints about broadcasts, came as it penalized the news channel Times Now, asking it to apologize on air as well as pay a fine for the way it covered an eve-teasing incident. It was responding to a complaint that the news channel had interviewed the alleged eve-teaser in an “aggressive, intimidating and browbeating style and telecast the interview with tag lines treating the accused as guilty”. This was seen as a breach of the Code of Conduct ensuring impartiality, neutrality and objectivity in reporting.
Fair treatment in the media
Significantly, Justice Raveendran in a detailed order while acknowledging the importance of issues such as women’s safety also recognized freedom of expression as a cherished fundamental right and at the same time emphasized the right of an individual to a fair trial and fair treatment in the media.
“Broadcasters cannot condemn as guilty persons accused of having committed a crime or offence when the matter is still under investigation or where the court is yet to decide upon the guilt or otherwise of the accused’, the order said. It went on to point out “media howsoever bona fide its intentions are cannot act as the judge, jury, prosecutor and investigator in regard to any matter pending before a court or under investigation. It should be kept in mind that the reputation or credibility of a person once lost, as a result of a sustained media campaign focus, can never be regained”.
The NBSA has issued a stern warning to the broadcaster to be more careful while broadcasting programmes or news reports about matters pending trial/investigation.
Interestingly, a few years ago in September, 2012 the Supreme Court while ruling on whether reporting on a trial can be postponed to ensure a fair trial had made a series of relevant observations.
“Freedom of expression is not an absolute value under our Constitution. It must not be forgotten that no single value, no matter exalted, can bear the full burden of upholding a democratic system of government. Underlying our Constitutional system are a number of important values, all of which help to guarantee our liberties, but in ways which sometimes conflict. Under our Constitution, probably, no values are absolute. All important values, therefore, must be qualified and balanced against, other important, and often competing, values. This process of definition, qualification and balancing is as much required with respect to the value of freedom of expression as it is for other values. Consequently, free speech, in appropriate cases, has got to correlate with fair trial. It also follows that in appropriate case one right [say freedom of expression] may have to yield to the other right like right to a fair trial,” a five judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice S H Kapadia had said while laying down a Constitutional principle allowing aggrieved parties to seek from appropriate courts the postponement of publication of court hearings.
This week’s order by NBSA chairperson Justice Raveendran has even more import than the Supreme Court comments on how the right to freedom of expression may have to yield to the right to a fair trial. Firstly, the NBSA is a body appointed by news broadcasters themselves and therefore its directives are more morally binding on broadcasters. The order has also come in the defence of accused who are facing media trial well before the actual case has reached the courts or even framed in a police charge sheet.
The order is also bound to raise other questions related to the growing propensity among certain television news channels to use unauthenticated videos some of which have later found doctored, which give substance to allegations long before they could be properly investigated let alone established.
There is also concern that the police, pressured by media campaigns on controversies and scandals, are more often than not allowing the public profiling of accused persons thus clearly compromising an objective investigation into offences they are supposed to have committed.
“I am shocked and surprised at the manner in which the police allow news television channels to publicly profile and even interview accused persons well before they appear in an identification line up which is a vital part of criminal investigation. It seriously compromises the investigation if you are going to give such widespread publicity to accused whose guilt or innocence are likely to be proved by eye witnesses” lamented retired Supreme Court judge Mukul Mudgal to this writer. Justice Mudgal is the chairperson of Broadcast Content Complaints Council (BCCC) which looks into complaints about entertainment channels.
Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde pointed out that in the case of the recent campaign by certain media channels against JNU students accused of shouting anti-national slogans, their right to an impartial investigation and a free trial were violated in all the three ways mentioned above. They were subjected to similar tactics of “aggressive, intimidating and browbeating” interviews with taglines projecting them as guilty as in the eve-teasing coverage. A Delhi government commission of inquiry has proved that some of the videos used by the new channel to condemn the students as guilty were actually doctored. Finally, the sustained television campaign against the students actively egged on by the Delhi Police – flashing images and videos with loaded tag lines projecting some individual students as guilty – turned later investigations based on eyewitness accounts of the concerned JNU event into a farce.
Both Justice Mudgal and Hegde welcomed the order by Justice Raveendran and hoped it would lead to more restraint by both news channels and also the police from compromising the rights of the accused for proper investigation and trial without any prejudice.
It remains to be seen whether this week’s judgment by the NBSA is a precursor to other similar cases including that of the JNU students being taken up and a proper benchmark established which would strike a balance between the right of the electronic media to inform viewers on matters of public interest as swiftly as possible and the right of the accused not be to declared guilty before there is enough authentic proof to do so.