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Does trial by media affect fair trial?

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Media, the indispensable tool in today’s world is certainly the most powerful and influential instrument for the transmission of information as well as to influence the people and shape their opinion. Media, often regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy and watchdog of the society has the duty to enlighten the public about the issues relating to public importance.

The basic purpose of journalism is to serve the people with news, comment, opinion and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate and unbiased manner. Media with its consistent reporting on any wrongdoing influences the people to demand appropriate action. Though freedom of opinion and expression is enshrined in our constitution and is extended to freedom of press and media, a trial by media can in some cases defeat the fundamental rights of an accused to a fair trial and interferes with judiciary free and fair decision making. 

A trial by media is a process where media crosses its defined boundaries and unjustifiably and recklessly tampers with the judicial process by conducting its own investigation and trial and destroying the image of the accused in the society. 

Media trial-adjudication has become a trend in the present scenario. The media has forgotten the gap between an accused and a criminal. The media initiating the unauthorized investigation and trial not only defames the accused by labelling him as a convict but such trial by media that contravenes or obstruct the function of the judiciary also comes under the purview of contempt of court. 

The criminal jurisprudence followed in Nepal is based on the principle of presumption of innocence which means the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty and the prosecution has a burden to prove the guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This notion must be followed throughout the criminal proceedings, from pre-trial to the final stage of hearing.

Every person shall have the right to a fair trial in civil and criminal proceedings so that their guilt or innocence can be determined by fair and effective legal processes. It is the fundamental right of an accused to have a fair hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of any criminal charge or in a suit at law. 

Even before the accused is tried, the media proclaims the accused to be guilty. The media houses conduct their own investigation and convince the readers/viewers about the guilt of the accused by projecting the irrelevant and inadmissible evidence as truth, covering and publishing interviews of the witnesses, victim, and victims’ relatives who are not supposed to testify, examining evidence that has not yet been produced before the court, disseminating information which may influence future witnesses, disrupt the decision making process and prejudges the issue of conviction of the accused while the matter is pending adjudication in a court of law. 

Suspects and accused apart, even victims and witnesses suffer from excessive coverage, adverse publicity and invasion of their privacy rights which ultimately prejudice trial proceedings. An impartial jury is an essential part of our right to a fair trial. Even though judges are supposed to be as objective as possible, this may be impossible because judges are exposed to news reports which consistently describe the accused as guilty of the crime. The judges while deciding a matter might get influenced by the unauthorized trial and public opinion created by the media.

The media scrutinizes the functioning of public institutions and makes them responsible, answerable and accountable to the public to whom they have to serve. The media shouldn’t publish false information because whatever they publish has a great impact on the viewer. Sometimes it neglects the real and core issues which the society is facing and forgets its social responsibility towards the people or breeds apathy. Despite the significance media holds in the present day by reaching out to the mass promptly, it is at least expected to ensure that trial by media will not hamper the fair investigation and more importantly will not prejudice the right of the accused in any manner whatsoever. 

Effective media is a requisite for the functioning of democracy. The media keeps the public informed and aware of all the happenings around the world and acts as a bridge between governors and governed. Although media helps in showing the truth and has become the voice of the people in the digital world, it has to maintain honesty, fairness and sensitivity in reporting facts, duty to rectify factual errors, prevent from using contents misleadingly and ensure credibility and accuracy in the news delivery.

While media can expose problems in society and bring issues to light, it could also at times, disregard its professional ethics and standards and come to the conclusion by making unverified claims on the accused. The media must be conscious of remaining careful towards its viewers and the thirst for sensational news should not interfere with the investigation, prosecution and adjudication. The media should avoid tarnishing the reputation of the accused, who has not yet been proven guilty by the court. Also, the general public should be cognizant and be able to differentiate fact from fabricated news. 

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