The case of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput highlights how social media behaviour expects a certain outcome.
All I know is what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.
– Will Rogers
The intersection of social opinion and judicial decision has been discouraged for a major part of the existence of the judicial institution. It is presumed that the keepers and speakers of the law cannot allow the general opinion of the masses to hamper judicial ethics. This stems from the idea that the general public is not equipped with the legal acumen that higher judicial officers possess and therefore, the viewpoint of the masses can substantially lack to cater to the underlying needs of the society. The court is empowered with a duty to rise above these social biases, dissociate themselves from the same, and apply the law judiciously, and through this deliberate process, ensure that the radical and pertinent future needs of the society are satisfied.
With the onset of social media trials and the engagement it has witnessed, a question arises as to how the judicial decisions need to be protected from possible inflictions. Social Media Trials are different from Media Trials. In R.K. Anand v. Registrar, Delhi High Court the expression ‘trial’ by media was defined as:
“The impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a court of law”.
About 100 years ago, a document was published in the Young India newspaper by none other than the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. The Bombay High Court in In Re: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi explained that:
“(s)peaking generally, it is not permissible to publish comments on or extracts from any pending proceedings in this Court, unless the leave of the Court be first obtained. Many good reasons may be advanced for this but the underlying principle is, I think, that of the due administration of justice for the public benefit, one incident of which demands that as a matter of common fairness, both parties shall be heard at the same time and in the presence of each other on proper evidence by an independent and unprejudiced tribunal. That object would be frustrated if newspapers were free to comment on or to make extracts from proceedings which were still sub judice. The vice is the interference with what is the Court’s duty and not a newspaper’s, viz., the decision of the pending case.”
WHAT IS A SOCIAL MEDIA TRIAL?
Social media trial is a situation wherein people engage in a discourse over social media platforms, and through the use of their personal opinions based on no evidentiary support, pass verdicts in cases being heard by the court. What follows is an intervention into the judicial space of a wide spectrum of perspectives which is charged with the potential to influence decisions. It is true that the law is a social construction. The theory of legal positivism states that the content of law is based on the social behavioural facts. But the interpretation and application of law cannot allow the public opinion to trample in its arena. It jeopardises the sanctity of the institution of law. This infringes the established legal right of fair trial of the accused.
THE LAW TO CURB IT
The existing laws by and large apply to the news media houses and their involvement in disseminating information through print and electronic media. The emergence of social media trends has allowed people, who have a following base that goes up in millions, to post their opinions and influence the masses. The freedom to express one’s opinions is guaranteed by Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. However, Art. 19(2) permits a reasonable restriction on such freedoms. The freedom of expression is so powerful that it needs to be kept a check on. Without the reasonable limitations attached to this freedom, it can shake the social fabric of the country.
PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE BLATANTLY IGNORED
The concept of presumption of innocence until proven guilty has been acknowledged in the sphere of International Human Rights under Article 11 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The doctrine is channelled down the drain by the intervention of the flood of opinions over social media. The opinions put forth by the citizenry on online platforms, under the protection of freedom of speech and expression, is not backed by a factual foundation. They could potentially be of a false and fictitious nature. In most of the cases, the feed that the citizenry receives is from untrusted sources due to a deficiency in quality reportage. This results in a sort of ‘dumbing down’ of a democracy by feeding them disproportionate information.
In the case of assassination of President Kennedy, the deluge of media coverage jeopardized the fair trial of the accused in the USA. In India, the Aarushi Talwar murder case is a glaring example of media maligning both the investigation and trial through rampant news coverage without any evidentiary basis, and managing to hugely influence the decision of the judges. The sensationalised media coverage in the K.M. Nanavati case influenced the decision of the jury to an alarming extent, resulting in an unfair decision. Ultimately, the jury system was abolished as a result of the incapability of jurors to distance themselves from their personal biases.
The case of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput highlights how social media behaviour expects a certain outcome. Even when the investigation is under process and the factual matrix of the case needs evidentiary augmentation to come to a point where an opinion can be formed, people are waiting with bated breath for the court to pronounce upon a decision that they ‘want’. In Sidhartha Vashisht v. State (NCT of Delhi) the court held that:
“[e]very effort should be made by the print and electronic media to ensure that the distinction between trial by media and informative media should always be maintained. Trial by media shall be avoided particularly at a stage when the suspect is entitled to the constitutional protections. Invasions of his rights are bound to be held as impermissible.”
Such a fiasco treads on the purity, integrity, and efficiency of the justice delivery system. It is impossible for judges to distance themselves from these inflating tensions amongst people and the pressure they put on the judicial system to serve to them a desired outcome.
In the case of State of Kerala v. Poothala Aboobacker, the court observed:
“The Fourth Estate does not seem to realise the irreparable damage inflicted on the victims of crimes and the alleged culprits and those close to them through the sensational journalistic adventures”.
It is relevant to consider that trials on these platforms also cause great humiliation to people who are openly accused and harassed without the existence of any factual basis to hold them liable. In the case of Sarvajeet Singh v. NCT of Delhi, a girl falsely alleged a man to have passed obscene comments on her and circulated his photograph across platforms. The man’s reputation suffered a severe blow and cost him his job. It was uncovered in the course of this case that the man was innocent and was falsely embroiled into this controversy.
In another case, a 17-year-old boy was accused of serious allegations of molestation by a minor girl on a social media platform. Although she didn’t have any evidence to satisfy the veracity of her claims, but he received online backlash. He eventually committed suicide. This incident took place after the ‘Bois Locker Room’ controversy wherein a group of boys passed lewd comments on the pictures of girls and openly talked about raping them. Both these incidents raise an important question as to whether the online platform shall be used for openly accusing people. Openly accusing people somewhere initiated with the #MeToo movement which is an online campaign initiated by Tarana Burke, where women come in solidarity to share their story of harassment at the hands of men. It garnered the attention of the courts and the government to initiate actions against the alleged offenders. While openly accusing people has proved to be efficient in terms of ensuring prompt action, it cannot be repudiated that it does tilt the scales towards the person who makes such allegations. And there are lesser chances for the accused to enjoy his right to fair trial inherently guaranteed under Art. 21 of the Constitution. Right to fair trial requires an atmosphere of judicial calm. A situation free from prejudice or bias.
It is an undeniable fact that the social media trials greatly influence the judiciary. It is evident from the fact that how some cases which are sensationalized by the media witness a speedier action taken by the courts. The judicial institution is a part of the society and it cannot operate in an absolute detachment from the majority viewpoint. While the efficacy of social media as a platform is remarkable, the online space cannot be used to launch defamatory attacks and hold people liable for grave offences. It infringes the right to live with dignity of a person protected under Art. 21 of the Constitution.
Distancing from the discourse on these platforms seems like an inevitable task. The source of information for the citizens is not just the news media, but content providers on various platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, etc. To regulate the entire online space is a Herculean feat. The opinions that people hold with solidarity may not stand in consonance with the ideals of justice and morality which are the deciding criteria of a case. It can take us back into a state of lawlessness when social opinions decided the fate of the accused. The law and the judicial machinery were instated to deliver justice and not to pronounce what the majority intends it to pronounce. As an individual, one should be motivated to search for the truth. An indifferent approach in the consumption of the information is not what a responsible citizen is expected to do.
Cover Image Credits: Soumia G.