'Media trials' lead to obstruction of justice, Press Council guidelines to be applicable for TV: Bombay High Court

  • Narsi Benwal
  • 12:18 PM, 19 Jan 2021

In a significant judgment on Monday, the Bombay High Court ruled that 'media trials' during ongoing investigation of any case does impact the probe and violate the program code under the Cable TV Network Regulation Act.

The court on this day asked media houses to exercise restraint when reporting on suicide cases, saying "media trial leads to interference and obstruction to administration of justice".

Since electronic media does not currently have its guidelines, the Press Council of India (PCI) guidelines for print media would be applicable to electronic media as well, the court ruled.

The ongoing case is in relation to the allegations of unfair 'media trials' conducted by several news organisations on televisions at the time when the investigating agencies were probing actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death.

Rajput was found hanging at his home in Bandra area of Mumbai on June 14 last year, which led to unbridled media trials on television.

The "regime" of self-regulation by TV channels (through associations) does not have any legal sanctity, the court said, observing that some of the coverages, especially those done by Republic TV and Times Now, are prima facie 'contemptuous'.

A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G S Kulkarni observed that the criticism of Mumbai Police by TV channels was 'unfair' and that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had 'abdicated' its functions.

The bench further said, "We do not want to impose any restrictions on covering the Sushant Singh Rajput death probe by the CBI, but the media will have to follow guidelines and exercise self-regulation."

However, the court decided against taking any action against the channels right now, instead issuing a slew of guidelines for media houses to follow when reporting in cases of suicide.

Media must avoid character assassination of the accused, the victim, or individuals related to the investigation such as the probe officer, the court added.

The Bombay HC also directed the media to avoid interviewing witnesses, probe officers, accused, family members of the victim, etc.

In addition, pronouncing guilt or innocence of any person, accused, or victim should be avoided by the media networks, as will predicting the future course of action.

Following weeks of exhaustive arguments, the bench had on November 6 last year reserved its verdict on a bunch of PILs seeking that the press, particularly TV news channels, be restrained in their reportage on the death of Rajput.

The PILs, filed through senior counsel Aspi Chinoy, by activists, private citizens, and a group of retired police officers, had also sought that TV news channels be stopped from conducting a media trial into the case.

During the arguments, the Union government's counsel, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, had said there already existed adequate statutory as well as a self-regulatory mechanism for the media, including TV news channels, to follow while printing or broadcasting any news item.

Private TV news channels that are 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.

(This Report was first published at The Free Press Journal here)