Bombay HC, Media
Bombay HC, Media
Litigation News

Media Trial in SSR case: Bombay HC notice in PIL to re-interpret Contempt law to cover publications made from stage of FIR in pending cases

The petitioner urges that Section 3(2) of the Contempt of Courts Act should be interpreted to cover publications obstructing the administration of justice in pending cases from the stage of FIR registration.

Meera Emmanuel

The Bombay High Court today issued notice in yet another PIL plea filed in the wake of the media trial in the Sushant Singh Rajput case.

Notably, this plea calls for a re-interpretation of contempt law so that publications made from the stage of filing an FIR in criminal cases may be subject to contempt liability if they obstruct or tend to obstruct the administration of justice in pending criminal proceedings. In this regard, the relevant provision is Section 3(2) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.

At present, only publications that are made from the stage of filing a chargesheet would be covered under this Section.

The petitioner organisation asserts that publications made before, right from the registration of a case/ filing of an FIR, should also be subject to contempt law through Section 3(2) of the Contempt of Courts Act.

The plea has been moved by a organisation, "In pursuit of Justice" through its authorised signatory, Advocate Shirin Merchant. It has been drawn by Advocates Neela Gokhale, Shruti Dixit and Kushal Choudhary.

It states,

"...the filing of the present petition has been triggered by the disturbing and continuous reporting of the SSR case whereby the sanctity of the state police machinery has been demolished and the public opinion has been sought to be manipulated against the state law and order machinery, leading to an inevitable ramification that the faith and confidence of the citizens of in the police machinery of the state has been seriously impaired."

Appearing for the petitioner today, Advocate Neena Gokhale asserted that rather than regulations on these matters from the State, the control should come from the Courts.

She further informed that the instant petition is different from other PILs filed against media trial in the Sushant Singh Rajput case in that it seeks an interpretation of contempt law in relation to restricting media trials in pending cases.

The Bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni today issued notice in the matter returnable by October 8, which is also when the other PILs concerning the media trial in the Sushant Singh Rajput case are likely to come up.

Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh was directed today to obtain instructions on the matter from the Union of India and the Law Commission of India.

The submissions made by the petitioner include:

  • There is an urgent need to examine and interpret Section 3 (2) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, to include within its scope and ambit any publication that obstructs or tends to obstruct the administration of justice during the pendency of proceedings, the starting point of which shall be read to be from the registration of FIR instead of filing of the final report under Section 173 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

  • Even the Law Commission in its 200th Report has recommended that the starting point of the proceedings should be from the time a person is arrested instead of the filing of the charge sheet. This report is still pending before the Parliament.

  • The Law Commission Report has discussed the issue at length and has raised the concern whether it is fair, just and equitable that publications obstructing the course of justice have been given immunity under Section 3(2) of the Contempt of Courts Act only because such publication was made before the filing of a chargesheet.

  • The recent, persistent and continuous reporting of the Sushant Singh Rajput case has blurred the line of fine and ethical reporting and irresponsible journalism, which has the propensity of setting up dangerous precedents.

  • The reporting in the Sushant Singh Rajput case has led to a general belief that the State machinery cannot be trusted and has completely shattered the credence and reliability which the citizens are entitled to have in the local police machinery. Thus, this is nothing but an obstruction in the administration of justice and a general distrust in public institutions which is an extremely dangerous state of affairs to sutfer in a democratic state

  • The media has actually tried and convicted the suspects/accused and have brought in the public domain statements of witnesses, confessions, details of forensic reports etc. which would ordinarily be a matter of trial and would form part of the investigation report to be dealt with by the court while framing charges.

  • Therefore, the constitutional right of a fair trial has been jeopardised seriously.

  • It has become necessary in the interest of justice that Section 3(2) of the Contempt of Courts Act be read down to deem that such publication may also be contemptuous as soon as an FIR is registered against a person.

  • While there cannot be any blanket injunction on the publication rights of the press, the media cannot be allowed to publish anything and everything, which the general public may find interesting but, may not be in public interest.

  • Since allegations are also being made on the private life of the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput, Explanation 1 to Section 499 of the IPC, 1860, which criminalises defamation, is also relevant. This explanation provides that "It may amount to defamation to impute anything to a deceased person, if the imputation would harm the reputation of that person if living, and is intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives."

  • It is unfair to sully the memory of the deceased by brazenly and blatantly publishing and broadcasting minutia of his life only for the interest of the public and not in public interest.

  • Having moved from news as information to news as entertainment, the media has cast aside the once inviolable line between reality and drama. Now the right of citizens to receive news as information has been replaced by receiving news as entertainment.

  • Even the Press Council of India has declared that the journalistic norms have been violated in the Sushant Singh Rajput case and that many media outlets are in contravention of the norms of journalistic conduct framed by the PCI.

The petition goes on to highlight that,

"The right to a fair trial, the right to reputation, the right of the public of maintaining the sanctity and confidence in the law and order machinery of the state, etc. cannot be allowed to be compromised and besmirched by the unbridled and unrestricted freedom of the media. Additionally, the provision of section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 is required to be read down to include the stage from which publications may be held to be prejudicial to fair and just trial, upon registration of an FIR in place of arrest of the suspect or filing of chargesheet."

In view of these concerns, the following prayers have been made:

  • Direct the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to issue appropriate orders/notification cautioning the media from publication/broadcasting information likely to obstruct the administration of justice, including the process of investigation;

  • Declare the scope and ambit of Section 3 (2) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 to include the starting of the pending proceedings to be from registration of FIR, for the purpose of invoking the said Act, in cases of publications which obstructs or tends to obstruct the administration of justice;

  • Restrain publication/broadcasting of information relating to the ongoing investigation in respect of the Sushant Singh Rajput case during the pendency of the present petition.

Read the Order:

IN PURSUIT OF JUSTICE v. UOI - September 15 order.pdf
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