Can a parallel process of trial by media be permitted when it can trample upon fundamental rights of an accused and interfere with free and fair decision-making?
Concerned over trial by media, which is often supplied with crucial facts on evidence by investigating agencies and prosecuting officers, the Supreme Court Thursday set about to consider framing guidelines for media over covering criminal cases and briefing by investigating agencies.
A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha described the issue as “very serious” and said the court would consider some guidelines to be put in place for balancing the rights and interests of all the stakeholders.
The bench, also comprising Justices Kurian Joseph and Rohinton F Nariman, noted that the apex court needed to delve into the issue in the wake of growing instances of trials by media and public condemnation of accused on the basis of information provided by police and prosecutors although the trial remains to conclude.
“It is a very serious matter…especially the media briefing by police and other investigating agencies. Nothing should be done to hamper investigations and secrecy of the probe. It requires certain checks since they all touch upon Article 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution,” said the bench.
It further said: “Can a parallel process of trial by media be allowed when a trial is already going on in court? We think it affects the entire trial process and rights of an accused. Media briefings by investigating officer during on-going investigations should not happen.”
Disapproving of parading of the arrested persons by police before media, the court lamented that even statements of accused made under Section 161 (before the police) and 164 (before a judicial magistrate) were being released to the media.
The bench sought to know whether there were any guidelines by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the subject matter. It asked all the counsel in the matter to adduce necessary guidelines and also their suggestions on how to deal with the issue and the possibility of framing guidelines. It appointed Gopal Sankaranarayanan as amicus curiae in the matter.
The court was hearing a PIL by NGO ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL), which was represented by counsel Prashant Bhushan and Sanjay Parikh. Senior advocate Shekhar Naphade appeared for the Maharashtra government.
The PIL has raised the issue of fake encounters by police, besides necessity to have certain guidelines before an accused is damned of serious charges, particularly in terror cases, by media publicity.
The bench is also set to examine the guidelines to ensure investigation into cases of fake encounters, as placed on record by PUCL, NHRC and the Bombay High Court.