Trial by media a matter of concern, say legal luminaries

Legally SpeakingTrial by media a matter of concern, say legal luminaries

The first edition of the Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture Series was organised on Saturday by the ITV Network’s English news channel, NewsX and Sunday Guardian Foundation on the topic of ‘Pros and Cons of trial by media’. Ram Jethmalani was the founder chairman of The Sunday Guardian.


Top legal luminaries of the country on Saturday voiced their concern about media trials and suggested an institutional framework to check this menace. They highlighted the importance of public opinion in the judicial process. In fact, senior Advocate Fali S. Narmiman advocated taking a look at the concept of jury system of trials in the country.

Participating in the first edition of the Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture series on “Pros and Cons of Trial by Media”, held through video conferencing, these legal veterans were unanimous that media has now become the voice of the people as it controls public opinion and that it should be channelized in the right direction. The event was organized under the aegis of Sunday Guardian Foundation and NewsX.

In his opening remarks, founder of ITV Network Kartikeya Sharma said: “During a time when tough and challenging decisions need to be taken, journalists became frontline workers.” In his welcome address, senior Advocate Mahesh Jethmalani said: “The endeavour of the series is to present the most informed opinions on a burning issue of the day.”

The programme was hosted by Rishabh Gulati, Managing Editor of NewsX.


Union Minister of Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad recalled nostalgic memories of Ram Jethmalani during his address. “I asked him ‘Ram, how did you cope with the struggles of partition?’. He replied, ‘Ravi I came with Rs 10 in my pocket, but ambition and aspiration’,” Prasad said.

Senior lawyer Harish Salve, during his address, said: “To call Ram a criminal lawyer is to describe his left half, not his right half. I remember Ram’s capacity to make complex problems simple. It was one of his great attributes.”
Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi recalled him by saying “he was truly a ‘yaaron ka yaar’.” “His friendships cut across generations. Many of us here today are decades younger than him. Above all I remember him as a very large-hearted man,” he said.

“Ram Jethmalani was not only a great lawyer but also a politician and parliamentarian,” said Justice N.V. Ramana of the Supreme Court. K.K. Venugopal, Attorney General of India, said: “Whenever I think of Ram Jethmalani, I think of a warrior. He was brave and fearless.”

Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta said: “Ram Jethmalani was a majestic and eloquent lawyer who acquired a unique stature. Nobody could have blasted media the way Ram did, but at the same time he was a darling of the media.”

Senior Advocate Fali S. Nariman, said: “Ram left a very high benchmark of professional excellence. In a long eventful life, Jethmalani was the most controversial person but this minor setback never bothered him. He was cast in a different mould. He had the 4 o’clock in the morning courage.” Former Attorney General Soli S. Sorabjee also recalled his association of Jethmalani.


Senior Advocate C. Aryama Sundaram said we have reached a stage where from the beginning an editorial decision is taken on the crime—its reasons and outcomes. At the judgement stage, the focus is now more on reaction to the judgement and if it is in line with the editorial policy, he said.

Sundaram said the three pillars of democracy—legislature, executive and judiciary—have failed to behave properly and that is why public opinion is listening to the fourth estate. He said: “Such is the power of the media that it has now become a public court, portraying itself as a court of public opinion. People accept the fourth estate and follow it. Media has become the deciding factor on how the public will think.”

“There is no doubt that media is the creator of public opinion. People accept the fourth estate as voice of the people because there is a complete loss of faith in the absolute fairness and integrity of all institutions including judiciary. There is public perception that there is corruption in courts,” he said.

Highlighting the importance of public opinions, senior Advocate Fali. S. Nariman said, we cannot prevent people from forming opinion. He called for relooking at the concept of jury system of trials in the country so that public opinion can be taken into account in the judicial process.


Talking about the menace former Union Minister and senior lawyer Kapil Sibal said media looks at discovery of facts as a way of earning TRP, which is not a good trend. He said media wields enormous power so much so that it can make a hero turn into a villain.

“Media’s role is not to ascribe a verdict. It should not be allowed to deliver verdict,” Sibal said, adding “certain media channels are playing to the tunes of the government”. He noted that the norms of the Press Council of India (PCI) are being violated. “None of these norms are being followed,” he added.

“At the stage of investigation, media should not be allowed to deliver verdicts lest it influences the procedure of law. Today, many Bollywood celebrities are being persecuted by the media and that is contrary to the rule of law,” he said.
The senior Congress leader quoted Ram Nath Goenka, saying that media should be standalone business. “Therefore we need a structure wherein businesses are disengaged from institutions that disseminate news,” he said.


Senior Advocate Harish Salve said trial by media has become a serious problem. “In case where system fails, media takes up discourse and brings forth the attention and kick-starts the law. Problem is when media becomes a parallel system of rule of noise, and where the rule of noise starts displacing the rule of law,” he noted.

“We jump into people’s personal lives, we call people names—all in the name of transparency. This system has to be contained if India has to become a serious republic,” he said.

On the issue of defamation law, he said: “I have suggested that we establish a tribunal today where we shall try cases of defamation and deliver justice in six months. I also feel that there has to be a system within the police force where there is a check on media trial, an independent person to whom someone can complain.”

Talking about social media, he said it has given power to the people who have some opinion or point of view on any issue. This atmosphere is not conducive and is the single biggest impediment (to fair trial), he added. The situation is so bad that foreign companies do not want to invest in India, he said.


Suggesting that the rule of contempt be rigorously applied, Salve said efforts should be made to fix accountability of the media. “I don’t believe that the I&B Ministry can interfere in content. Media has to be controlled by the courts, courts have to lay down the ‘Laxman Rekha’. In UK, defamation cases are fast tracked,” he said. According to Salve, media’s role should be to unearth cases where system fails.


Expressing concern over the increasing trend of media trial, another senior Congress leader and former Union Minister, Abhishek Manu Singhvi said Indian news has plummeted in the wrong direction of the equation between sense and sensationalism, news and noise, civility and chaos and balance and extremism. He said the notion that judges are not influenced by media is “romanticised”.

“Deliberate interruptions, unevenly numbered viewpoints drive TRP now,” he said and added that there are no pros of media trial. Talking about the trend of speaking loudly during TV debates, he said “verbal terrorism” should be made a new offence. Compassion and analysis have been replaced with greed and irrational logic, he said.
“The Delhi High Court not too long ago rightly told us that today the best substitute for action thrillers is in certain television news programmes,” said the senior lawyer.

Singhvi was of the view of that the status of the fourth pillar given to media was “exalted” and “so you have to be prepared to face the slings and arrows of scrutiny”. On the role of Press Council of India, he said it has become worse than a toothless tiger and that self-regulation is the key to solve the problem. He also spoke about the “Chinese wall” to be built between conflicts of interests.

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