The Bombay high court has made some scathing observations in its 251-page order on the media trial in reportage of late Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by television media. While doing so, the court also felt that the authorities, who could have regulated and put a stop on the media trial, had abdicated their duty.
The court said, “We do not approve such abdication of substantive power conferred by the Cable Television Networks Act (CTVN) Act and the CTVN Rules by such authorities in favour of a voluntary organization (private body), which is formed by the channels themselves, namely, the NBA and which has constituted the ‘NBSA’.”
The court further added, “We, accordingly, direct that every complaint which would be made on the contents of any programme on any television channel, either to the authorised officer or the Central Government in regard to violation of the Programme Code, shall be dealt with in a manner as provided under the CTVN Act and immediate action be taken thereon, without the involvement of any private bodies like NBSA or NBF. This would be dehors any complaint made to these bodies or any other such bodies, which would be dealt with by these bodies as per their self-regulatory mechanism.”
The court recognised the work done by journalists in many significant cases in the past and said, “but for the media’s intervention the criminals in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, the Jessica Lal case, the Nitish Katara case and the Bijal Joshi case could have escaped unpunished.”
The court further noted that “overzealous investigative journalism” may qualify as instances of obstruction to “administration of justice”, calling for judicial scrutiny.
Having said so, the court was also of the opinion that “since the Contempt of Court Act does not provide a guideline on what constitutes interference with/obstructing “administration of justice”, it is not advisable to spell out any strait-jacket formula which can be applied universally to all cases without variation.”
The judges in their judgement also directed the press/media to exercise restraint and refrain from printing/displaying any news item and/or initiating any discussion/debate/interview of nature, as indicated hereunder:
a. In relation to death by suicide, depicting the deceased as one having a weak character or intruding in any manner on the privacy of the deceased;
b. That causes prejudice to an ongoing inquiry/investigation by:
(i) Referring to the character of the accused/victim and creating an atmosphere of prejudice for both;
(ii) Holding interviews with the victim, the witnesses and/or any of their family members and displaying it on screen;
(iii) Analyzing versions of witnesses, whose evidence could be vital at the stage of trial;
(iv) Publishing a confession allegedly made to a police officer by an accused and trying to make the public believe that the same is a piece of evidence which is admissible before a Court and there is no reason for the Court not to act upon it, without letting the public know the nitty-gritty of the Evidence Act, 1872;
(v) Printing photographs of an accused and thereby facilitating his identification;
(vi) Criticizing the investigative agency based on half-baked information without proper research;
(vii) Pronouncing on the merits of the case, including pre-judging the guilt or innocence qua an accused or an individual not yet wanted in a case, as the case may be;
(viii) Recreating/reconstructing a crime scene and depicting how the accused committed the crime;
(ix) Predicting the proposed/future course of action including steps that ought to be taken in a particular direction to complete the investigation; and
(x) Leaking sensitive and confidential information from materials collected by the investigating agency;
c. Acting in any manner so as to violate the provisions of the Programme Code as prescribed under section 5 of the CTVN Act read with rule 6 of the CTVN Rules and thereby inviting contempt of court; and
d. Indulging in character assassination of any individual and thereby mar his reputation.
With this, the court said, that these guidelines “are not intended to be exhaustive but indicative, and any report carried by the print media or a programme telecast by a TV channel, live or recorded, ought to be such so as to conform to the Programme Code, the norms of journalistic standards and the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Regulations.
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