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Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture: India’s top legal minds discuss ‘trial by media’ and the need for controlling measures to hold news channels accountable

All speakers deliberated on the increasing trend of media trial, and the need for regulations to ways to prevent it.

2 days ahead of ace lawyer Ram Jethmalani’s birthday on 14th September, the iTV network hosted the first edition of Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture Series on 12th September, which was broadcast on the group’s TV channel NewsX. The topic for the discussion was trial by media. India’s finest minds in the legal fraternity participated in the event conducted through video conferencing, which was hosted by Kartikeya Sharma, founder and managing director of iTV.

Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Ram Jethmalani’s son and senior lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani, Supreme Court judge Justice NV Ramada, KK Venugopal, Tushar Mehta, Fali S Nariman, Shri Soli J. Sorabjee, Kapil Sibal, Harish Salve, Abhishek Singhvi and Aryamana Sundaram spoke in the event.

Mahesh Jethmalani

Inaugurating the event and welcoming the speakers, Mahesh Jethmalani said that the objective of the lecture series is to promote excellence in bar, as well as to foster a passion among lawyers and common people about the constitution and the laws of the country. He presented the topic of the discussion, which is the most burning issue related to law and justice in recent times, ‘the pros and cons of trial by media‘. He said that a vital aspect of justice in criminal cases is a fair investigation and a fair trial.

Giving the example of the ongoing Sushant Singh Rajput’s death case and the high-profile media coverage of the same, Mahesh Jethmalani said that sometimes media houses seem to have obtained evidences which have not been gathered by even the investigating agencies. He wondered if such parallel investigation by the media in full public glare is in the interests of the justice or not. Jethmalani said that a line should be drawn between a laudable investigative journalism and a media witch-hunt. “Does the media believe in justice or in simply taking a position and depicting it as just?” he asked, saying that the panel members will share their views on the issue.

Ravi Shankar Prasad

Union Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad delivered the first speech in the event, where he recalled his nostalgic memory of Ram Jethmalani, when he was a student activist during the JP movement in Bihar, and had protested against the Emergency. He said that Jethmalani had left his practice in India, went to the USA and started campaigning against the emergency there.

Ravi Shankar mostly talked about his memories with Ram Jethmalani. He narrated how once Ram Jethmalani had told him that he had come to India from Pakistan during partition with just Rs 10 in pocket but with an ambition and a vision. The minister talked briefly about the topic, saying that it also the expectation of people that investigation should be fair. Along with that, there is also a stake of the people of India in a fair investigation. “How to balance the two is a difficult question but the balance has to be achieved,” the minister added.

KK Venugopal

Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal described Ram Jethmalani as brave and fearless, and a warrior in the legal field. Recalling Kerala bar association meeting in 1975, where Jethmalani was invited as the chief guest, Venugopal narrated how he had delivered a fiery speech attacking the Gandhi family and tearing Sanjay Gandhi apart. At that time people were afraid to even listen to such a diatribe against the Gandhi family, and a larger number of lawyers and reporters left the venue as Jethmalani was speaking, but he still finished his speech, Venugopal said.

Tushar Mehta

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta described Ram Jethmalani as a legend, a phenomena, and said that it is a befitting tribute by his son as the topic of the lecture series, media trial, was very dear to his heart. Nobody could have blasted media the way Ram did, at the same time he was a darling of the media, Mehta said. Calling Jethmalani a bundle of contradictions, the solicitor general reminded how he fought institutional corruption with full commitment and also appeared to defend people accused of corruption with equal amount of commitment.

Harish Salve

Senior advocate Harish Salve slammed the media for running media trial in criminal cases. He criticised the media for turning big criminal story coverage into a “circus”, but he also slammed investigating agencies for selective leaks to the media. He said that by evening on almost all media channels 5-6 ‘expert jurors’ promptly come to a conclusion of guilt and convict the accused.

Harish Salve said that media was invading the privacy of people in the name of transparency, and this system has to be changed if India is to be taken as a serious democracy.

He also said that investigating agencies clamour for arrest when they are given cases to probe. He claimed that the probe agencies tend to frame the person against whom media has made allegations. “Investigation agency feels it is their moral duty to see that the person against whom media has made its allegation is the culprit,’’ he said.

Although he criticised the role of media in reporting crime cases, he acknowledged that government control is not the solution. “The only way to fix this is not through the government because anything worse than reckless media is a government tamed media,” Salve added. He said that the media should be controlled by the courts, and courts have to lay down the Laxman Rekha which the media should not cross.

Salve said that he has been suggesting successive law ministers and I&B ministers to set up a tribunal, which will try cases of defamation and deliver judgement in 6 months. He said the trouble today is that media can slander people easily, and if defamation cases are file they go on forever, he said. Salve added that if defamation cases are settled within six months, it will help in taming the media. He said that a solution has to be found to protect private reputations from trial by media.

Harish Salve added that media must unearth cases where the system has failed the victims, but they should not run a parallel investigation and trial when the cases are actively pursued by the system.

Kapil Sibal

Congress leader and senior advocate Kapil Sibal also criticised the recent trend of trial by media, saying that it is nothing but breach of law, and it should be considered as contempt of the court. “Of late, the media acts as the court, passes judgement even before the court, pronounces its verdict,” he said. Sibal said that media has power as the 4th pillar of democracy, but to misuse this power is criminal.

The Congress leader who had a TV channel said that technology plays a very great role in terms of its reach and its influence, and the influence of mainstream media is both constructive and destructive. He added that social media is a jungle of words and images, where it is difficult to tell what is true and what is fake. “These platforms provide choices, but in that terrain, it is difficult to make a choice”, he said. Kapil Sibal said that all mediums and technology can be misused, and there should be always a Laxman Rekha to be drawn in respect of all human activity.

He also acknowledged the role of media in exposing crimes, saying that media in any form is an indispensable tool to detect crime, expose protection of criminals by the rich and the powerful, unearth facts and bring them in the public domain, build pressure that investigation is commenced, and further expose attempts by agencies to protect the accused. Sibal added that the role of media should be limited to discovery of facts during the investigation of a case. He mentioned some cases where media ensured that the guilty were punished, like the cases of Ruchika Girhotra, Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo, Nirbhaya etc.

But now the problem is that media has taking such discoveries of facts as way of earning TRPs, resulting in not bothering about the credibility of the source, Sibal added. “They instead try to sensationalise the event, even if it takes distortion of facts. And the fact of the matter is that the media can make a hero turn into a villain in no time at all because of its enormous power,” he said.

Kapil Sibal said that sometimes media verdicts overshadow the court verdict, and the appearance of social media has deteriorated the situation further. “Today, the media has reincarnated itself into a public court. The new media presumes guilt, and the victim must prove his or her innocence,” he added.

The former union minister gave the example of 2G case to illustrate damage caused by trial by media. He said that the trial has acquitted all the accused, but in the entire process so much damage was done to the telecom industry that “a sector which was then live and kicking, which was earning profits, which was providing efficient service- is today under the debt of almost 5,000 crore.” He stressed that media should not be allowed to deliver verdicts at the stage of investigation, because it can influence the processes of the law.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi

Another Congress leader and lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi also participated in the event and talked about trial by media. He said that if the media claims the ‘exalted status’ of the 4th pillar of democracy, they also must be open to criticism just like the other three pillars. He said that while media has done a fantastic job on news gathering, investigation etc, the Indian news has plummeted in the wrong direction of the equation between sense and sensationalism, between news and noise, between civility and chaos, and between balance and extremism. He described the actions of India media as verbal terrorism, visual extremism, and content fundamentalism. He attributed the TRP race, revenue, politics, ambitious anchors, public baying for blood as the reason for the degradation of media.

Abhishek Singhvi pointed towards techniques used by TV channels, which included non-level playing fields in debates, verbal blood sport, the conscious invitation to biased and malicious panellists, strategic cutting of mics, one-sided themes etc. He said that serious news items are presented as crime thrillers, extremist and fundamentalist viewpoints are easily spoken by anchors and participants without bothering about their threats to democracy.

As a remedy for the situation, Singhvi said that time has come to name and shame. He said that the NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) must be more proactive, it must issue advisories more often, and those should be “followed not merely by snarling but by biting and fighting hard”. Only if few violators are made examples by the NBSA, a lot of it will stop.

Singhvi added that the NBSA guidelines should be recognised by the I&B ministry, and they should be notified under the Cable TV act and regulations. Because without that, it does not bind non-members, he added. Here it is interesting to note that NBSA was formed by News Broadcasters Association (NBA), an organisation of some news channels, not all. There is a rival organisation, News Broadcasters Federation (NBF), formed by Republic TV, TV9 Bharatvarsh, and around 50 regional channels.

He said that NBSA is failing because channels leave their membership. Therefore, Abhishek Manu Singhvi indirectly suggested that NBF members should be forced to follow the guidelines of their rival organisation, a clear attempt at controlling Republic TV headed by Arnab Goswami.

Singhvi said that there is an urgent need of an independent ratings agency. He said the 44000 TRP meters installed in the country to measure viewership is too less. He also called for creating a Chinese wall to eliminate conflict wall in the media. He remined that the Broadcasting Bill is languishing in the parliament for almost 25 years since 1997, and stressed that this bill should be passed.

Aryamana Sundaram

Advocate Aryamana Sundaram said more than ‘media trial’, the issue is of ‘pros and cons of increased influence of media in ongoing investigations and trial’. He said that it is not right to blame only media, as media is driven by public opinion. He said that public listens to the fourth pillar because other three pillars have failed.

He that today media has become a creator of public opinion. While earlier it was said that let the guilty get away in nine cases out of ten just to save one innocent, today media wants to say let nine innocent men be hanged but dont let one guilty get away. He said that the media has become the voice of the public.

Sundaram said that if the other three estates were functioning properly, the fourth estate, the media, would not have become like this. He said the institutional failure is responsible for the current situation of trial by media, as public has lack of faith on the system. “There is public perception that corruption has entered the judiciary, there is no doubt that there are extreme delays in justice, there are no doubt that people who will be brought to book will take about 29 years to be completed”.

Due to this low public perception about police and courts, media comes forward and tells that they are interested in getting the justice. “There is a complete loss of faith in the absolute fairness and integrity of all institutions, including judiciary because of delays and corruption”.

Sundaram concluded by said that it is a fact that media has become a public court, and media has started portraying itself as a court of public opinion. Media is also determining what the public opinion should be. Media is doing that because public has lost faith in looking anywhere else. He said that it is wonderful that media is a watchdog of public opinion and public interest, but let the media not become a guard of brain treating the public as blind and trying to leave them alone around. He also called for improving other institutions so that media does not have to take on their roles.

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