April 17, 2008
WHEN Ram Jethmalani was asked about defending the indefensible Manu Sharma, the maverick’s reply to the interviewer’s first question began with the words “Who the hell is the press to decide who is indefensible?” Now though the question might’ve taken a surprise beating from the famed criminal lawyer, it didn’t keep a persistent press from reporting on the fragile issue – something its insisted from the very beginning that it only mirrored the perspectives of the Indian people by doing the same – nothing less, and certainly, nothing more.
Then followed the eagerly awaited Delhi High Court judgment, and was it a breather for the Lals: “We have no hesitation in holding Siddharth Vashisht, alias Manu Sharma, guilty of the offence of murder.”
It was at about this time that the media were being reckoned as a go-getter of many a middle-class Indian. Now I’m saying this, in respect of their legal confrontations against those bothersome influentials. This was understandable because presumably for the first time in its democratic record, had the nation witnessed a tangible transformation in the media: Passitivity had taken a back seat. Instead, a yellowing case had joined hands with an advocate of instant attention.
Yet contrary to popular belief is also concern that bona fide activism may slip into what’s often called media sensationalism, or worse yet – cause schadenfreude against the defense. And with I-can’t-wait-to-hear-what-happened folks buying news stories than ever before, there arises this question: Where does the accused stand in all of this, between the media and justice?
But before getting to an answer, there’s few other important aspects we need to consider that couldn’t possibly be overlooked.
In today’s world of interfaced media, the 24-hour news might’ve moved ahead to become the plebian voice; although that sounds pretty oracular, it’s still apparently, not alien from criticism. And why so, writer-turned-rights activist Arundhati Roy points out in one of her articles: “On discussions, chat shows, and ‘special reports’, we have television anchors playing around with crucial facts, like young children in a sandpit.”
Moreover, what seems totally ironic is that despite the news media’s synonymity with standing up for rights, are all fellow citizens afforded the opportune break of earning a once over by the press when fighting an ill-matched party? In truth, does the contemplative aam admi, so typical of carrying tiffin to work, have a choice in this?
But with that said, we can’t brush off the fact that our skyscraping democracy could all too easily fall apart without the fourth pillar on ground. Be it the unmasking of a pocket-padding politico or the broadcast of self-confessing rioters; the Spartan journalist is the first to fight the migrant apathy we’ve often (and that too, with a sense of comfort) yawned off as, “Look, that don’t concern me whatsoever.” You see, that’s way cooler than acting blindfolded to vices that have aged adversely to become kosher with time.
But hold on! If that’s for real, then what happens to the polemics of media driven trials? “The presence of a few rotten eggs cannot be reason to damn the entire journalistic community.” So wrote news personality Rajdeep Sardesai under a gripping “Media has the right to expose rot within” title that appeared in the Deccan Herald. And after throwing light on how the media’s disclosed the stains in the Jessica Lal case, Mr. Sardesai asserted in his op-ed piece: “This is not ‘mob justice’, nor is this a media trial.”
What then is the answer? My guess is that until the kismet of the accused is made manifest by the gavel, it’d be safe to go with the well established precept of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. But the lawless beat up of Moninder Singh Pandher and Surendra Koli for their alleged killings at Noida, also casts doubt on whether an outraged crowd will always think that way though. Hey! Isn’t that a downright disregard for audi alteram partem or “no man shall be condemned unheard”, which remains one of the fundamental principles of natural justice? Plus, when you have 49 per cent of Indians tuning into TV first for news, it becomes all the more important for us, a news watching nation to acknowledge an unvarnished truth: When it’s about rendering a decision upon the fate of an accused, it’s best left to the wise discretion of the courts. And that’s precisely what follows the initial sentence of Mr. Jethmalani’s reply: “Courts decide that.” He said, adding: “And they decide that after hearing the lawyers.”
Yet then as now, should the verdict aggrieve the accused, there always remains his right to challenge the same in the higher courts; and by the way: that too, makes first-rate breaking news.
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