On May 25, 2008, Zee News telecast a show titled ‘Crime File’ about the “media trial and verdict” of the Arushi-Hemraj case. Inspired by the dubious versions circulated by the police, the episode unambiguously indicts Rajesh Talwar for killing his daughter and the domestic help. Doubling as mind-reader, anchor Manoj Raghuvanshi painstakingly explains the ‘motives’ behind the crime. Rajesh Talwar was having an affair with his friend Anita Durrani. His daughter is upset and starts confiding in Hemraj and they end up having an affair. On that fateful night, Rajesh Talwar discovers them together and kills them in a fit of temper.
As though presenting speculations as facts were not bad enough, the show recreated sequences showing Arushi and Hemraj getting close. Despite their spectacular lack of conscience and journalistic ethics, Zee News is not the only culprit. Almost all television channels have been guilty of jumping the gun without bothering to apologise for wrong conjectures.
The public has been equally complicit in that they have been quick to deliver premature verdicts through TV talk shows, vox-pops and SMSes. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty constitutes the core of the fundamental right to liberty. This cardinal principle of criminal justice has been grossly violated by the media. Even if Rajesh Talwar were to be declared innocent by the courts, it would not be adequate compensation for the stigma, harassment and vilification the family continues to suffer. Apart from demanding privacy and defamation laws, it is important that we insist on the undertrial’s right to a fair trial. .
In December 2003, Zee News had telecast a film titled ‘December 13 Parliament Attack’ depicting the then prime suspect S.A.R. Geelani as mastermind behind the Parliament attack. Translated from Hindi, the opening commentary declared: “Presenting news in a new fashion, Zee TV’s film ‘December 13’ was shot in 16 days. This is a new chapter in the history of India.” The film opens with a Hindi text that reads (in translation): “This film is based on the charge-sheet prepared by the Special Branch of the Delhi police. In order to explain the incident the help of actors have been taken. However, the incidents have been realistically represented.” Replete with false accusations — even fabrications — the film, as Geelani’s lawyers pointed out, made allegations that were not even mentioned in the police charge-sheet. As is now well known, none of the charges could be proved and Geelani was acquitted by the Delhi High Court.
Geelani’s appeal that the telecast of the film prior to the judgment be stayed so as not to prejudice the trial was turned down by the Supreme Court on grounds that “judges by their judicial training and the office they hold are not supposed to be influenced by the broadcast of such films”. While such an aspiration is noble, it is untenable. Judges are human beings like everyone else and not above social or political influences. But insularity may not be such a virtue given that the judiciary has a responsibility to apprise themselves about the debates within civil society. Similarly, civil society must also take the responsibility of ensuring that social and legal institutions run according to democratic norms. While it is true that Geelani was acquitted despite the film, it is equally true that a fair trial was ensured by the intervention of the All India Defence Committee for S.A.R. Geelani comprising prominent citizens of India. By putting the media and the police investigation under scrutiny, the Defence Committee had made a case, not for Geelani’s innocence, but the importance of fair trial in a democracy.
The right to fair trial is a norm of human rights law designed to protect individuals from the unlawful and arbitrary curtailment or deprivation of other basic rights and freedoms, the most prominent being the freedom to life and liberty. It is guaranteed under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that proves that “everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, impartial tribunal established by law”. The objective is to inform the government and general public of possible irregularities in criminal procedure and to ensure that trials are held according to international human rights standards. It was in the interests of fair trial that the Bombay High Court had stayed the release of the film Black Friday till the judgment about the serial bomb blasts of 1993 had been delivered.
There seems to be some confusion, even among journalists, about the role that the media ought to play. After all, didn’t the media do a splendid job in the Jessica Lall case? Should the media not lobby for justice? Of course, it should. But that job is best done by doggedly pursuing stories, reporting facts accurately and making a distinction between editorialising and reporting. It is not for the media to establish guilt or innocence. But it should surely monitor the proceedings to ensure that a fair trial is in process. Unfortunately, in the Arushi-Hemraj murder case, the media have ended up doing just the reverse.
Shohini Ghosh is Professor, Dr Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi