“The Media should be guided in a way to prevent further violation of human rights”
Careful people, Bengali women are known for black magic. They will entice your man with the help of their ‘kaala jaadu’ and rob him of his wealth. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? After all, this is all over the news and social media platforms. But why is this happening?
It is no secret that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of a free society. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right also includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek and receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. The freedom of speech and expression is a ‘fundamental right’ under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution. Media is instrumental in protecting the human rights of the people and reporting instances wherein such rights are prone to be violated or infringed.
Freedom of speech and expression entails the right to speak one’s mind without any censorship and put one’s ideas and thoughts in words. However, this right is not absolute is subject to various limitations under Article 19(2).
MEDIA AS A WATCHDOG
Media is likely to report instances of human rights violations. This is very helpful in spreading awareness. We are well-informed about the human rights violation in Kashmir, the naxalite problems in Chhattisgarh, the violation of the young female bodies in Africa due to Female Genital Cutting or the plight of the sex slaves in Syria; and media has played a critical part in spreading this awareness. Media plays a role of a catalyst, in highlighting human rights violations, and it will not be incorrect to state that Media acts as a watchdog in this regard.
This aspect has been discussed in Part I of the article: Role of Media in Human Rights.
THE WATCHDOG MAY BITE (MEDIA TRIALS)
We all were in shock, when we heard about the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. No one was prepared to see such a young and talented actor meet his end so soon. But what we were not prepared for, was also the sensationalization of the same. Photos of the late actor’s body was circulated on the social media platforms, theories about his death being a suicide or a murder started showing up in every feed; media houses, broadcasted debates on the same; big names where being attached to the case; his girlfriend being pointed at as the suspect. All this, even before the preliminary investigation was completed. It was also demeaning, how a popular media house displayed the news of the late actor’s death as ‘hit wicket’ and ‘got out’. Hilariously, we have an entire community’s women being termed as ‘witches’ by millions on social media, because the late actor’s girlfriend was from that community.
This is not the first time, media houses tried to sensationalise a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to celebrities. We all remember the tragic death of Sridevi and how media houses thought it would be great for their TRP to show animated bathtubs and recreate the death scene on national TV. Where is the privacy of the family who are mourning? Where is the respect for the deceased?
One of the critical fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India is the ‘right to life’ as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The word ‘life’ has given a liberal interpretation by the Supreme Court of India in the case of Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, where it stated that right to life does not merely refer to the physical act of living but it also includes the right to live with human dignity. Elaborating on this aspect, in the case of Francis Coralie v Union Territory of Delhi, the Supreme Court held that right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it; the bare necessities. And to live with human dignity is to have the right of legal assistance and free trial. Free and fair trial is said to be the sine qua non of Article 21. Right to free and fair trial is not only the right of the accused but also the victims, their family member and relatives and society at large. Right to a fair trial is considered to be one of the most important and a crucial right in the Justice System. Fair trial obviously would mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and atmosphere of judicial calm. Fair trial means a trial in which bias or prejudice for or against the accused, the witnesses, or the cause which is being tried is eliminated. It resonates with the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
However, the changing trends in the manner of media reporting may create impediments in conducting a fair trial. The country is witnessing the emergence of a trend: “media trials”. Without generalising, the perception is that the journalist’s integrity and detachment, right to privacy of all stakeholders, have taken a backseat as some of the media-houses run sensational stories for TRP and public attention. This often leads to presenting the accused in a sensationalised manner and sometimes may also breach their right to privacy. Media verdicts, before any judicial verdict in every way can be termed as an exploitation of the ‘freedom of press’. Such media trials have the potential of having detrimental affect the fair trial of the accused. It is pertinent to note that under criminal jurisprudence, the accused is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
Media has started taking up the role of Sherlock, in conducting investigations. This itself, is not bad, as the general public will be interested in knowing the truth. Such independent investigations are also welcomed if the investigation agencies are not doing their job properly. However, media should be mindful that such investigations: (i) are not violating the human rights of either the accused or the victim; and (ii) are not derailing the real investigation. One of the notable cases of media trial is the case of Arushi Talwar. In this case the media played a significant role in presenting the deceased’s parents as the culprits and ignited public hatred towards them. Although after thorough investigation, the parents were not found guilty. The criminal justice system works on the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Exposing the judges to immense pressure due to the emotions of the public at large has the power of colouring the mind of judges. Another shocking case of media trial is the case of the Delhi boy who chose to end his life after being falsely accused of molestation.
When it comes to death or any other mysterious incidents around celebrities, media takes on a life of its own all together. Ready to dissect cases like a laboratory frog, one can bid farewell to the right of privacy. Who has time to wait for the actual investigation to get over and the judicial trial to be conducted, when all that is trending is for people to take a side and pass righteous judgments? Bringing up the case of Sushant Singh Rajput once more, let us take a look at how the public and media opinion about the circumstances surrounding the death changed. First, it was a suicide, and then there were the conspiracy theorists, who suggested murder. This was followed by the nepotism debate. And now, while the investigation is still going on, the focus is on how his girlfriend was allegedly involved in his death. It is important to note, that the word ‘allegedly’ is nowhere mentioned in any of the social media pages, posts or memes that have already declared her as guilty.
Freedom of press, freedom of speech and expression, includes the construct of fair comment and criticism. The media has the duty to serve the interest of the public at large. However, it is essential that there should be a balance between the rights of the accused/victims and the freedom of the press. The freedom of press is not absolute and unrestricted. While heinous crimes and the concerned perpetrators must be called out and media’s role must be appreciated for this, deviation from unbiased reporting and usurping the functions of the judiciary (through media trials and verdicts) is not something which should be celebrated. The protection of the human rights of the victims/accused/witnesses is also important because after all, “Today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts”, Mary Robinson.