Media cannot be given the right to speculate on outcomes of ongoing investigations or criminal trials: Kerala High Court

IN a significant order, the Kerala High Court on April 19 in T.N. Suraj vs. State of Kerala & Ors. observed that the media cannot be given the right to speculate on the outcomes of ongoing investigations, court proceedings or criminal trials. According to the court, media trials result in the denigration of the justice delivery system.

The single judge bench of Justice Mohammed Nias C.P. of the High Court held:

Half truths and misinformation cannot be the basis of publications or telecast. The media cannot be given the right to speculate on the outcome of the on going investigations or the court proceedings or criminal trials…trial by media results in denigration of the justice delivery system which without doubt, is the very foundation of the rule of law in any democratic set up.”

These pertinent observations were passed by the court while hearing a petition moved by Malayalam actor Dileep’s brother-in-law, Suraj. He moved the court alleging that media channels were subjecting him to media trials while reporting about a murder conspiracy case and a sexual assault case.

On the night of February 17, 2017, a prominent South Indian actress was allegedly abducted and molested inside her car by a group of men, who had forced their way into the vehicle.

Subsequently, Dileep and a few others were arrayed as accused in the case and an investigation into the matter is ongoing.

Earlier this year, another case was registered against Dileep and Suraj, among others, for conspiring to threaten and kill the officials probing the 2017 case.

After Dileep moved a petition against the investigation, the high court this week refused to quash the first information report and related proceedings.

As far as Suraj’s petition is concerned, it was claimed that the respondent channels are publishing fabricated allegations against the accused and their associates in the said cases. Therefore, he had sought an injunction to restrain the media from reporting the court proceedings.

The court this week proceeded to issue an interim ex-parte gag order against Reporter TV (one of the channels) restricting it from publishing/broadcasting/telecasting any item concerning or relating to aforesaid cases for three weeks.

Right to freedom of speech and expression cannot be a license to abuse justice delivery system: Suraj

While ordering the grant of anticipatory bail to Suraj and his brother in law, the media was reminded by the high court that its right to freedom of speech and expression cannot be a license to abuse the justice delivery system by persons with little or no knowledge of the fundamental legal principles, Senior Advocate George Poonthottam, appearing for Suraj, argued.

According to the petitioner, the top police officers investigating the case were leaking out materials allegedly collected during the investigation, including those from the in-camera trials.

In spite of the orders of the Magistrate Court and Sessions Court concerning the publication of details pertaining to court proceedings, Reporter TV as well as the other media portals had been reporting these details. This clearly interferes with the administration of justice, besides causing prejudice to the petitioner, it was contended.

Additional Director General of Prosecution Gracious Kuriakose appearing for the respondents, questioned the petitioner’s locus standi to approach this Court since he was not even an accused in the 2017 actor assault case.

The court was further told that media must have got materials that were published from the documents produced before this court in various proceedings including in the applications of bail and thus, reporting the same cannot be illegal.

High Court’s gag order: reasons and directions

The high court noted that there are several rights that come into play when a prayer for a gag order is made.

“The right of the public to know the details of the criminal case through the media, the media’s right to freedom of speech and expression, the right of the victim to bring out the truth through a fair trial, presumption of innocence which the accused or the suspect has until proved guilty, the right to reputation, privacy which are facets of Article 21 of the Constitution of India available to the parties and above all the indefeasible right for a due administration of justice in accordance with the law.”

Media debates are permitted in a democratic government by rule of law, the court agreed. But it cannot usurp the jurisdiction of the courts, which alone have the constitutional authority to decide the guilt/innocence of a person or decide on the content, quality or the width of any right available to any citizen/accused/suspect, the high court pointed out.

The court further opined that media trials influence public opinion, and they could often lead to a loss of faith in the justice delivery system.

“Reports/telecast having the effect of prejudicing mankind against the parties and the court before the case is heard clearly interferes with the course of justice. A larger negative impact to a trial by media, a more subtle one which often goes unnoticed also needs a mention. In a trial by media which apart from adversely affecting the rights of an accused for a fair trial has immense power to influence public opinion. A perception is created for or against the accused in the mind of the laymen. So much so, that when a Judge passes a verdict which may be totally against the layman’s perception, it causes him to distrust the integrity of the very legal system.”

The single judge also pointed out that the time-tested system of arriving at the conclusion of guilt based on legal evidence may not always be familiar to a layman, and that they may be more comfortable with the version that the media has given them.

The court laid emphasis on the rule of law that grants every accused a right to ensure that they are tried as per the procedure laid down by the criminal laws on the basis of the evidence collected, and that the case should not be influenced by a parallel media trial or by comments and discussions by the media regarding matters which are sub judice.

Further, it was held that the information leaked by the investigation agencies and levelling allegations against individuals based on such leaks are not protected by the freedom of press under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It was also ruled that the media cannot defend any telecast claiming that what was telecast was based on the prima facie findings of an investigating agency, or worse, on the basis of suspicions of an investigating agency.

With these observations, the single judge prohibited Reporter TV from publishing anything except the court orders in the case for the next three weeks.

“The propensity of the 6th respondent is clear and therefore, a reasonable inference about its continuance can be drawn. Considering the nature of the contents of the publication/telecast…and that those materials had not been established in any legal proceedings, there cannot be any justification for permitting such publications. Thus viewed, I have no hesitation to hold that the instant case warrants the extreme step of passing directions against the 6th respondent to prevent such publications in future.”

Pointing to the specific allegations made against three officers investigating the cases for leaking information to media portals, the court asked them to file counter-affidavits in response. The State Police Chief has also been directed to ensure that no information regarding the investigation in the murder conspiracy case shall be leaked out to anyone by any of the Investigating Officers.

The matter will next come up on April 29.

Click here to view the Kerala High Court’s order.

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