Criticising the media for “influencing” investigations in criminal cases and matters under trial, several senior lawyers on Saturday said that the combination of mainstream media and social media has become a “dangerous cocktail”, leading to an atmosphere not “conducive to rule of law”.
Addressing the first edition of Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said: “Today, the media has reincarnated itself into a public court. The rule of presumption of innocence and guilt beyond reasonable doubt has been thrown to wayside,”
In his address, senior advocate Harish Salve said the media has a role in cases where the system fails because of political interference or due to police apathy. But, he added, the problem begins when the media becomes a “parallel system of rule of noise, and where rule of noise starts displacing the rule of law”.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the time may not be too far when there would be a need to invent offences such as “verbal terrorism, visual extremism and content fundamentalism”.
Senior advocate C Aryama Sundaram said public opinion is listening to the media due to the failure of the three other estates of democracy.
Sibal said. “The new media presumes guilt and the victim must prove his or her innocence. The standards of reasonable doubt is substituted by the presumption of guilt, without any benchmark standards.”
He said sensationalism in the 2G spectrum case led to decline of the country’s telecom sector. He judges are also human beings and are liable to be influenced by what happens outside courts.
Referring to the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, Sibal said when probe agencies are already working in tandem with the government, mainstream media platforms are used for purposes that have nothing to do with rule of law.
Salve said: “Indian criminal justice system, in high-profile cases, has become a circus. Our agencies, in a large number of cases, are unable to probe…so trial by a court of law, trial in accordance with law of evidence…. I don’t think the media believes in any such thing called the law of evidence. The trial by a system governed by rule of law…has been replaced by a trial by embarrassment.”
He said selective leaks from investigating agencies are carried as headlines, and then in the evening on media channels there are “four-five expert jurors” who come to the conclusion of guilt and convict the accused.
“Reputations in India do not matter. You jump into people’s personal lives and call them names — all in the name of transparency. This system has to be contained if India has to become a serious republic,” he said.
According to Salve, the courts need to come in when media channels start running campaigns for public opinion in matters pending before courts.
Singhvi said viewership, rating game and the revenue has become a “toxic triangle”, and the society in general is not exempt in the whole game. “Viewership would not drive this engine unless the society has begun treating salacious as sane and is prepared to believe the worst about everyone,” he added.
Stating that there is an “institutional failure” in India, Sundaram said, “The media has become a public court and started portraying itself a court of public opinion. The media is doing that because the public has lost faith in looking anywhere else.”
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