Bombay HC on Media Reporting, Obligation of Investigators, Media Trial, Freedom of Press and the proverbial ‘Lakshman Rekha’ for Media Houses || Read this detailed report unravelling several significant aspects cropped in light of Sushant Singh Case

Bombay High Court: The Division Bench of Dipankar Datta, CJ and G.S. Kulkarni, J., while addressing the several questions on reporting by electronic media, expressed that:

“The duty of the press/media to have news items printed/telecast based on true and correct version relating to incidents worth reporting accurately and without any distortion/embellishment as well as without taking sides, cannot, therefore, be overemphasized.”

Genesis of the Several Public Interest Litigations

In the instant matter, several PIL’s cropped from the unnatural death of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14, 2020.

Insensitive and Disparaging Comments by News Channels

On June 20, 2020, a complaint was lodged against one of the prominent news channels before the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting seeking action for insensitive and disparaging comments against the Indian Army and the coverage of the death of the actor, stated to be in defiance with the Programme Code.

Further, it was said that no action against the media channel was taken in regard to the complaint made.

Media Trials

Since the time of death of the actor, several prominent media channels have been literally conducting ‘media trials’ and ‘parallel investigation’ by conducting and broadcasting debates, rendering opinions, exposing the material witnesses, examining and cross-examining the witnesses, chasing the officials of CBI who were investigating the case.

Petitioners added that the above-stated telecast and broadcast are available in the public domain.

Sensationalization and Scandalize the death of the Actor

It is said that the prominent news channels in their attempt to sensationalize the issues have gone as far as displaying the CDR records which is a vital piece of evidence, thereby resulting in the several threat calls and messages sent to the alleged accused.

The petitioners say that to scandalize and sensationalize the death of the actor, irresponsible reporting to implicate one of the prominent ministers of the State of Maharashtra and have been making derogatory, false and distasteful remarks against several ministers.

Further, it was also pointed that the news anchors and reporters were examining and cross-examining all the proposed witnesses exposing the probable evidence to the public which could be examined only by the investigating agency or by the competent courts during the course of the trial.

Press Council of India

PCI had also issued a statement wherein it was stated that the coverage of the alleged suicide of the actor by many media outlets was in contravention of the norms of journalistic conduct.

Undermining the concept of free and fair trial

Petitioners submitted that the freedom of the media, especially of the TV channels, cannot be allowed to super stretch to a point where, by outpouring reprobate information, begins to clog and cloud the pellucid comprehension of ‘facts/news’ in the people’s minds and impinges upon free and fair investigation.

Fundamental Question

Whether the media under the garb of reporting news, can serve their own opinions as facts/news?

Petitioner observed that media works to create or induce opinions by narrating and reporting opinionated and tailored facts as news, which is beyond the scope, power and privilege accorded to the proverbial fourth pillar and a blatant abuse and misuse thereof.

Petitioners assert that media is plagued with the affliction of disproportionate reporting, which may be seen from the undue coverage given to inconsequential and mindless matters, unrelated to the greater good of the people of the country, as opposed to issues of national and international importance which the people are grappling with such as the COVID 19 crisis, mass joblessness, economic downfall, starvation, medical and healthcare structural problems, farmers issues, domestic violence, etc.

Adding to the above, petitioners stated that it is not the media’s domain to prove someone guilty a definitely no question of calling out someone guilty or innocent until the investigation and trial is complete.

Petitioners referred to the Supreme Court decision in Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), (2010) 6 SCC 1, wherein the Supreme Court has commented on the danger of serious risk of prejudice if the media exercises unrestricted and unregulated freedom, and stated that people at the helm of affairs should ensure that trial by media does not hamper fair investigation by the investigating agency and more importantly does not prejudice the right of defence of the accused in any manner whatsoever.

Petitioners refer to the decision of the Supreme Court in R.K. Anand v. Delhi High Court, reported in (2009) 8 SCC 106, where the Supreme Court observed that it would be a sad day for the court to employ the media for setting its own house in order and the media too would not relish the role of being the snoopers of the court.

Observation

Contention that media houses have crossed the ‘Lakshman Rekha’

Bench opined that the petitions filed aimed at redressal of genuine public harm or public injury and involve substantial public interest.

Hence, the Court overruled the objections of the media houses to the maintainability of the writ petitions.

Important Legal Questions before the Court

  1. What does the expression “administration of justice in any other manner” in Section 2(c)(iii) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 connote, and whether trial by media/pre-judgment while a police investigation is in progress could lead to interference with/obstruction to “administration of justice”, thereby constituting criminal contempt under the aforesaid section?
  2. Is it necessary to construe “judicial proceedings” in Section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 to have commenced with the registration of an FIR? Also, is it at all necessary to read Section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 in the manner the petitioner in PIL (St.) 2339 of 2020 urges us to read?
  3. Whether media trial in respect of matters pending investigation of a criminal complaint, fall within the restrictions as contained in the Programme Code as postulated under Section 5 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and the rules framed thereunder?
  4. Whether the regime of self-regulation adopted by the news channels would have any sanctity within the statutory framework?
  5. While emphasizing on the need to strike the right balance between freedom of speech and expression and fair investigation/right to fair trial, to what extent, if at all, should press/media reporting be regulated if the same interferes with or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, “administration of justice”?

Further, the Court also proposes to address the following incidental questions:

  1. Are the guidelines for reporting cases of deaths by suicide sufficient? If insufficient, should further guidelines be laid down for reporting cases of deaths by suicide?
  2. Has the media coverage complained of in these writ petitions interfered with/obstructed and/or tends to interfere with/obstruct “administration of justice”, and thus amounts to criminal contempt within the meaning of section 2(c)(iii) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971? and whether criticism of Mumbai Police by the electronic media is fair?
  3. Is the accusation that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, being the Nodal Ministry, has abdicated its statutory functions [under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act and the rules framed thereunder read with the Policy Guidelines of 2011 and the license executed with the broadcaster] of deciding complaints received in respect of offending programmes, by forwarding the same to private bodies like the News Broadcasting Authority (NBA) and the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF), justified?
  4. Should an order be made, on facts and in the circumstances, postponing reporting of events by the media in respect of investigation by the CBI into the FIR registered by it pursuant to the complaint of the actor’s father? Also, is it necessary for the Court to suggest measures for regulating media coverage of incidents such as the one under consideration to address the concerns expressed in these writ petitions?

Analysis

  • Investigative Journalism

The controversy in the instant matter raises questions of contemporary importance touching upon the right of the press/media to express views freely, the right of the deceased to be treated with respect and dignity after death, the need to ensure investigation of the crime to proceed on the right track without being unduly prejudiced by media reports based on “investigative journalism”, and the right of the accused to a free and fair trial as well as the right to not be prejudged by the media.

“Right guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is not merely a right of speech and expression but a right to freedom of speech and expression.”

 In Supreme Court’s decision of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, (1985) 1 SCC 641 the need to protect the ‘Freedom of Press’ was highlighted, which is the heart of social and political intercourse.

Further, the Court referred to in LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah (Prof.), (1992) 3 SCC 637, wherein the flavour of the right to freedom of free speech and expression was brought out by the Supreme Court.

 “What resonates in our ears now is whether the right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is the most abused right in recent times?”

 To the above stated, Court answered in negative and expressed that “it is a reminder of what has at times been the unsavoury past of the press/media in India crossing the proverbial ‘Lakshman Rekha’.”

Rule of Law

There can be no two opinions that in a society governed by the rule of law, no price is too high to maintain the purity of administration of justice; and, as a Constitutional court, we have the power, nay the duty, to protect not only the Fundamental Rights of the citizens as well as the press/media in the judicious exercise of our jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution but also to secure that the stream of administration of justice flows unsullied and unpolluted, uninfluenced by extraneous considerations.

 Supreme Court’s decision in Harijai Singh, In Re., (1996) 6 SCC 466 held that:

“10. But it has to be remembered that this freedom of press is not absolute, unlimited and unfettered at all times and in all circumstances as giving unrestricted freedom of speech and expression would amount to an uncontrolled licence. If it were wholly free even from reasonable restraints it would lead to disorder and anarchy. The freedom is not to be misunderstood as to be a press free to disregard its duty to be responsible. In fact, the element of responsibility must be present in the conscience of the journalists.”

PCI Guidelines

Electronic media should also be guided by the contents of the guidelines of the PCI on reporting of death cases by suicide for two reasons: first, the said guidelines have a statutory flavour and similar such binding guidelines on reporting cases of death by suicide are non-existent for the electronic media; and secondly, the absence of such guidelines could lead to the dignity of the dead being breached with impunity.

The death of the actor was followed by such crude, indecent and distasteful news reporting by a few of the TV channels that we do not consider it worthy of being referred to here and be a part of this judgment.

Court’s Ruling

“No report/discussion/debate/ interview should be presented by the press/media which could harm the interests of the accused being investigated or a witness in the case or any such person who may be relevant for any investigation, with a view to satiate the thirst of stealing a march over competitors in the field of reporting.”

High Court opined that the press/media ought to avoid/regulate certain reports/discussions/debates/interviews in respect of and/or touching upon any on-going inquiry/investigation into a criminal offence.

Hence, Bench 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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;

  1. 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
  2. Indulging in character assassination of any individual and thereby mar his reputation.

Role of Media Houses

Bench advised media houses to inform, guide and advise the guest speakers to refrain from making public utterances which are likely to interfere with and/or obstruct the administration of justice and thereby attract contempt.

The role of the anchor, in such cases, is also important. It is for him/her to apply his/her mind and avoid the programme from drifting beyond the permissible limits. Muting the speaker if he flies off or shows the tendency of flying off at a tangent could be one of several ways to avoid embarrassment as well as contempt.

Investigative Agencies

Court also reminded the investigative agencies that they are entitled to maintain secrecy in the course of the investigation and are under no obligation to divulge materials thus collected.

Further, the Court added that:

If indeed there is leakage or disclosure of materials, which has the potential of stifling a proper investigation, it could pave the way for such information being laid before the competent court having powers to punish for cri6minal contempt under Section 2(c) of the CoC Act and in an appropriate case, for being dealt with in accordance with law.

Appointment of an Officer as a Link between the Investigator and Media Houses

Agreeing with Mr Datar’s suggestion Court observed that:

Mumbai Police, as well as the other investigating agencies, may consider the desirability of appointing an officer who could be the link between the investigator and the media houses for holding periodic briefings in sensitive cases or incidents that are likely to affect the public at large and to provide credible information to the extent such officer considers fit and proper to disclose and answer queries as received from the journalists/reporters but he must, at all times, take care to ensure that secret and confidential information/material collected during the investigation, the disclosure whereof could affect the administration of justice, is not divulged.

In case an officer as stated above would be appointed, he would be expected to bear in mind the Supreme Court’s decision in Rajendran Chingaraveluv. R.K. Mishra, (2010) 1 SCC 457.

“Every journalist/reporter has an overriding duty to the society of educating the masses with fair, accurate, trustworthy and responsible reports relating to reportable events/incidents and above all to the standards of his/her profession. Thus, the temptation to sensationalize should be resisted.”

Therefore, in light of the above discussions, the Court disposed of the PIL’s filed.[Nilesh Navalakha v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine Bom 56, decided on 18-01-2021]


Advocates for the Parties:

Mr. Devadatt Kamat, Senior Advocate a/w Mr. Rajesh Inamdar with Mr.Shashwat Anand, Mr. Pankaj Kandhari, Ms. Smita Pandey, Mr.Amit Pai, Mr. Vishal Jagwani, Kevin Gala, Siddharth Naik, Pinky Chainani, Mr. Ankur Azad, Mr. Sarveshwari Prasad, Mr. Rahat Bansal, Mr. Faiz Ahmad. i/b Mr. Pankaj Kandhari for Petitioners.

Mr. Anil Singh, Additional Solicitor General a/w Mr. Sandesh Patil, Mr.Aditya Thakkar, Mr.Amogh Singh, Ms. Apurva Gute, Mr. Chintan, Mr. Mayur Prashant Rane, Mr. Sumedh Sahakari, Mr. D. P. Singh, Ms.Reshma Ravapati, Mr. Saurabh Prabhulkar and Medvita Trivedi for respondent Nos.1, 4, 12 and 13.

Mr. Arvind Datar, Senior Advocate i/by Mr. Bharat Manghani for respondent 3 (NBA)

Mr. P. P. Kakade, Govt. Pleader with Mrs. R. A. Salunkhe, AGP for respondent 5 -State.

Mr. Rajeev Pandey with Mr. Madhur Rai i/by PRS Legal for respondent No.6(The India Today Group).

Mr. Kunal Tandon a/w Ms. Prachi Pandya i/by Corporate Attorneys for respondent No.7 (Times Now).

Ms. Malvika Trivdei a/w Mr. Saket Shukla, Mr. Vasanth Rajshekharan, Mr. Mrinal Ojha, Mr. Debashri Datta, Mr.Rajat Pradhan, Ms. Madhavi Joshi and Mr. Siddhant Kumar i/by Phoenix Legal for respondent 8 (Republic TV).

Mr. Angad Dugal, Mr. Govind Singh Grewal, Shiva Kumar, Tanya Vershney, Raj Surana a/w Rishi Murarka for respondent 9 (NDTV Ltd.).

None for respondent  10 (News 18).

Mr. Ankit Lohiya a/w Mr. Hetal Thakore, Mr. Kunal Parekh, Ms. Bhavika Tiwari i/by Dua Associates AOR Mumbai for respondent 11 (Zee News).

Ms. Hetal Jobhanputra for respondent No. 14 (ABP News).

Mr. Jayant Mehta a/w Mr. Alankar Kirpekar a/w Mr. Tejveer Bhatia, Mr. Rohan Swarop, Mr. Shekhar Bhagat i/by MAG Legal for respondent 15 (India TV).

Mr. Siddhesh Bhole, Mr. Rishabh Dhanuka i/by Alba Law Offices for respondent No. 16 (News Nation).

Mr. Siddharth Bhatnagar, Senior Advocate a/w Mr. Pralhad Paranjape for respondent No. 17 (NBF).

One comment

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