Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Role of media in fair trial


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Issue of media trials


  • In an ongoing case, the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties asked the Supreme Court to issue guidelines to regulate media briefings by the police to ensure fair trial.
  • This has left the judiciary with no choice but to deliberate on binding directives to the police.

What is Media Trial?

  • Media Trial is when various newspapers, magazines, television channels, social media websites interpret facts of a particular case and present them in front of the general public.
  • In India, we have witnessed media trials in many cases where before the verdict of the Indian judiciary, the media channels frame an accused in such a manner that the general public believes him/her to be the person guilty of such offence.
  • Media Trial is not prohibited in India, but it influences the views and opinions of the general public as well as judges and lawyers.

Issue of media trial

[A] For Police

(1) Investigation fouling

  • In criminal cases that attract the most sensationalist media coverage, media attention is often drawn toward investigation and early trial stages.
  • This makes the police a crucial source for the media and communication between the two institutions is often a starting point of the troubles of media trials.

(2) Unregulated divulgence of case details

  • Leakage of information by police force and disproportionate reliance on this information by the media results in a public stripping of the rights that typically accompany a fair trial.

(3) Blow to procedural justice

  • Most police departments do not have dedicated media cells, making officials of all levels authoritative sources of information and blurring the boundaries between an official and informal police account of events.
  • As a result, the evidence-based narrative of criminal cases presented by the police to a court varies significantly from the account provided to the news media.
  • This is detrimental for the persons involved in the case, and the justice system as a whole.

[B] For Judiciary

(1) Violation of the rights of litigants

  • Reportage of this nature violates the presumption of innocence and the right to dignity and the privacy of suspects, the accused, victims, witnesses and persons closely related to them.
  • They often face social ostracization and difficulties in retaining employment, making them vulnerable to crime and exploitation.

(2) Disharmony

  • Police narratives are sometimes designed to achieve political goals, and the media’s ready acceptance of these narratives does little to prevent their insidious effects.
  • Given the media’s ability to shape political opinion, law enforcement agencies are sometimes under pressure to selectively reveal certain facets of the investigation or to mischaracterise incidents as communal or systemic.

What should be the role of Media?

  • Contextualization: Problematic news coverage of criminal cases arises when reporters absolve themselves of any duty to contextualise information revealed by the police.
  • Verification of the facts: Media ethics extend beyond verification of facts to check its Authencity.
  • Create public awareness: Apart from making sure that police narratives are accurate before making them public, reporters bear the burden of translating the significance of police versions in a criminal trial.
  • Prevent mistrust in institutions: It is meant to protect, and contributes considerably to the public apprehension and mistrust in the system.

Why is news media being hyperactive?

  • We should remember that the new media as an institution is NOT a not-for-profit organization.
  • The negligence can be attributed to the changing nature of the newsroom , responding to deadlines externally set by competing social media accounts that now qualify as news.

Court directives and legal provisions

Ans: The Romila Thapar vs Union of India, (2018) Case

  • Courts have repeatedly directed law enforcement authorities not to reveal details of their investigations, especially the personal details of the accused, before trial is complete.
  • It calls for states to enact their own laws based upon social construct.
  • The Ministry of Home Affairs issued office memorandum outlining a media policy over a decade ago, but this is of limited value given that ‘Police’ is an entry in the State List and thus falls primarily within the jurisdiction of State governments.

Way forward

  • Uniform regulation: Government regulation is not uniform for print and television media and enforcement of these regulations, where it occurs, is slow.
  • Prevent overt regulation: In any event, Government regulation of the media is problematic and likely to increase politicization of the press.
  • Strengthening self-regulation: Self-regulation set-ups such as the National Broadcasting Standards Authority and Indian Broadcasting Foundation are membership-based and easily avoided by simply withdrawing from the group.
  • Reconcile the public faith: It is now in the immediate interest of the media and the general interest of free press, that media institutions look inward to find an answer to what is essentially an ethical crisis.


  • The media’s immense power to shape narratives regarding public conceptions of justice makes it a close associate of the justice system, bringing with it a responsibility to uphold the basic principles of our justice system.
  • The media should feel subject to the obligation to do its part in aiding mechanisms that aim to preserve these principles.


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