New Delhi: The Bombay high court observed that ‘media trials’ can obstruct the administration of justice, and is in violation of programme code under the Cable Television Network Regulation Act, impacting the ongoing investigations.
The high court on Monday made the observation while disposing of a batch of public interest litigations (PILs) filed by former police officers, activists, lawyers and NGOs from Maharashtra in the aftermath of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June 2020. They had requested the court to issue restraint orders to media reporting on the actor’s death. After hearing out the arguments of various parties for weeks, the court had reserved its judgment on November 6, 2020.
In the aftermath of the actor’s death in June 2020, a number of television channels went overboard with the coverage, naming and shaming the accused, and concluding the cause of death even before the police had completed their investigation.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S. Kulkarni said the reportage by television channels, especially Republic TV and Times Now, after the actor’s death was “contemptuous”. The judges, however, restrained themselves from initiating any action against the said channels.
“Any reportage has to be in accordance with the norms of journalistic standards and ethics, else media houses stand to face contempt action,” the court said.
The court also agreed with the accusation of the petitioners that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had “abdicated statutory functions” in regulating media from vitiated coverage on the actor’s death.
According to an Indian Express report, the court had, in fact, asked the Centre on October 29, 2020, as to why it cannot frame guidelines for media coverage on sensitive criminal matters and ongoing investigations. It had also wondered if such “excessive” reporting by the press amounted to interference in the administration of justice under the Contempt of Courts Act.
To this, the Union government’s counsel and additional solicitor general, Anil Singh, had said there already existed adequate statutory as well as a self-regulatory mechanism for the media, including television news channels, to follow while printing or broadcasting any news item.
Private television news channels, a party to the case, had also argued that the self-regulatory mechanism was adequate and no new statutory mechanism or guidelines were required to control the media.
Therefore, the court ordered in its ruling on Monday that the Press Council of India (PCI) guidelines will apply to electronic media along with print media till the time electronic media frame their own guidelines.
The PILs, filed through senior counsel Aspi Chinoy, by activists, private citizens, and a group of retired police officers, had also sought that television news channels be stopped from conducting a media trial into the case.
The petitioners include former DGPs P.S. Pasricha, K. Subramaniam, D. Shivanandan, Sanjeev Dayal, Satish Chandra Mathur, and former commissioners of Mumbai police Mahesh N. Singh, Dhananjay N. Jadhav and former Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief K.P. Raghuvanshi.
According to the Indian Express report, their petitions called out “anchors of some TV channels (who) have been virtually running a vituperative 24×7 campaign against Mumbai Police and its Commissioner, DCP of the zone and other officers by attacking them by name in most unbecoming manner”.
The petitioners further alleged that the basic principle of the criminal justice system that an accused is deemed innocent until proven guilty was completely ignored by the media conducting its own trial while creating an atmosphere of “prejudice”.
The court, however, disposed of the writ petitions stating that the findings were for the purpose of adjudication of the writ petitions and not on the subject matter.
(With PTI inputs)