Media trial, as seen in Sushant Singh Rajput’s case, amounts to contempt of court: Bombay High Court

Published : January 18, 2021 19:18 IST

The Bombay Hight Court. (Photo: Vivek Bendre)

Coming down on two TV channels for their coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, the Bombay High Court made several observations with regard to the electronic media’s crime reporting practices and handling of investigation data. While calling their programmes on the case “prima facie contemptuous”, a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni cautioned the media against speculation on criminal investigations.

As per a LiveLaw report, the bench, while advising that coverage be informative and of public interest, held that “media trial [that happens after judicial proceedings begin] interferes with administration of justice and hence amounts to 'contempt of court' as defined under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.”

In disposing of PILs seeking regulation of media trials in the backdrop of the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, the bench laid down guidelines by pronouncing them in open court. Chief among them, it held that the Press Council of India’s guidelines on crime reporting be made applicable to broadcast media as well.

Speaking to Frontline, senior advocate Sanjay Hedge said that aggrieved persons could now approach courts citing this judgment, saying they were subject to a media trial that was in violation of the new norms. “The High Court’s order is the law of the land now. It applies everywhere, and not just for Maharashtra-based media organisations.” He hoped the judgment’s implementation would see the kind of regulation that media companies have not allowed for earlier in the guise of ‘self-regulation’.

In this particular case, the court said that "criticism of city police by TV media was unfair, in view of the material placed on record. The city police was at the very basic stage of probe.” It added that media trials ‘interfere’ with police investigations, violate the Cable TV Act’s provisions, and can prejudice the rights of the parties involved.

It also slammed the channels and authorities for the practice of using confessions as evidence without informing viewers that they were not admissible as evidence in court, and also for selective leaks which compromised the secrecy of the investigation. Hedge welcomed this, pointing to Umar Khalid’s detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, where he as the accused was yet to get a copy of the charge sheet, while leaks were selectively released to pro-government media.

Investigating authorities, it said, have the right to maintain secrecy and have no obligation to divulge case details. The court also called for the appointment of public information officers in the police, to give authentic information about ongoing probes.

During the hearings, the division bench, in its remarks, slammed the media reportage in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, before reserving its judgment on November 6, 2020. It observed:

"We would like [the] media not to cross boundaries,"

“If you become the investigator, prosecutor and the judge, what is the use of us? Why are we here?"

"If you are so interested in unearthing the truth, you should have looked at the CrPC! Ignorance of law is no excuse."

The bench had asked Republic TV’s counsel if asking public opinion on who should be jailed was investigative journalism, in reference to its '#ArrestRhea’ campaign.

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