Men are born and remain free and equal in Rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.
These words rightly point out that all men are born equal with the same rights as the next man without any discrimination based on religion, gender, caste, sex or region. The origin of Human Rights can be traced back to the period of the Renaissance. The United Nations, formed in 1945 have always tried to uphold Human Rights. The atrocities and horrors of the Second World War led to the birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. India too has made considerable efforts to uphold Human Rights.
Human Rights are generally defined as the rights, which every human being is entitled to enjoy and to have protected. It means the right relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the constitution or embodied in the international covenants and enforced by the courts in India. They are the common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.
It is no secret that free speech is the cornerstone of a free society. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and receive information and ideas through media. It is the inherent right of the citizens of a democratic country and India, being a democratic country has made the freedom of speech and expression a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution and nowhere can this be better understood than through the Press and Media of the country. The Media of any country for that matter is instrumental in protecting the Human Rights of the people and reporting instances wherein such rights are prone to be violated or infringed.
Freedom of speech and expression entails the right to speak one’s mind without any censorship and put one’s ideas and thoughts in words. However, no right can be absolute and the same goes for the Right to freedom of speech and expression as it has a duty to maintain peace and harmony by exercising various limitations in order to maintain order in society. This right is subject to various limitations under Article 19(2). No limitations would likely result in uncontrollable exercise of this right which in turn might be a violation of Human Rights. The Media should be guided in a way to prevent further violation of human rights.
Human Rights have become increasingly important over the last few years and public awareness to has increased. Human Rights come up everywhere in the news and therefore, it is likely that media reporting on Human Rights will only increase. This is incredibly useful for because the media tends to report instances of human rights violations throughout the world which otherwise we would be in the dark about. Whether it is the tensions in Kashmir, the Naxalite problems in Chhattisgarh, the violation of young female bodies in Africa due to Female Genital Cutting or the plight of the sex slaves in Syria, we are aware and well-informed of all these exploitations of human rights because of the interference of the media and their Right to Freedom of Speech. It cannot be argued that the media plays a catalyst role in communicating the plights of the unfortunate, their daily challenges and adversities to the people who are likely to help them. In this aspect, it can be said that the media takes on the role of a watchdog.
Coming to the other end of the spectrum, let us take a look into how; often instead of protecting human rights, the media ends up violating them. One of the key fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India is the Right to Life as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The word ‘life’ has been given a liberal interpretation by the Supreme Court of India in the case of Maneka Gandhi v Union of Indiawhere it stated that the right to life does not merely refer to the physical act of living. Still, it also includes the right to live with human dignity. Elaborating on this, in the case of Francis Coralie v Union Territory of Delhi, the Supreme Court had held that right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it; the bare necessities. And to live with human dignity is to have the right to legal assistance and free trial. Free and fair trial is said to be the sine qua non of Article 21. The right to a free and fair trial is not only the right of the accused but also the victims, their family members and relatives and society at large. The right to a fair trial is considered to be one of the most important and crucial rights in the Justice System of any country and India is no different. It is essential in the principles of Natural Justice as well. A fair trial obviously would mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and an atmosphere of judicial calm. Fair trial means a trial in which bias or prejudice for or against the accused, the witnesses, or the cause being tried is eliminated. It resonates with the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
However, with the growing and changing trends in the media and its ways of reporting, there seems to be a rift forming between Freedom of the Press and the Right to a fair trial. The country and the world at large, are witnessing the emergence of a trend; the media trials. Journalist integrity and detachment, right to privacy, all have taken a backseat as the media houses run after sensational stories in order to maintain public attention. This often leads to what is now termed as media trials where an accused is presented in the most sensationalised way possible with no regard to his Right to life, right to fair trial or right to privacy. This often leads to media verdicts and media punishment which is in every way an exploitation of the Freedom of the Press. This affects the actual trial of the accused, who is innocent legally. It also affects the lives of the people involved in the trials.
Media takes on the role of Sherlock as it conducts an investigation of its own and constructs an image of a person or organisation and presents it to the public. This amounts to undue interference in the administration of justice. The most significant case of the media trial was the case of ArushiTalwar wherein the media played a significant role in presenting the deceased’s parents as the culprits and ignited public hatred towards them. Although the parents were not found guilty after a thorough investigation, the damage to their reputation had already been done. The criminal justice system works on the principle of guilt proved beyond reasonable doubt and not on emotions. Exposing the judges to immense pressure due to the emotions of the public at large variably colours the judicial proceedings. Another shocking case of media trial which is very recent is the case of the Delhi boy who chose to end his life after being falsely accused of molestation. The case of Prashant Bhusan still is an open wound when it comes to the clashes between the Judiciary and the Media.
One must remember that freedom of the press and freedom of speech and expression also includes fair comment and criticism. The media has the duty to serve the interest of the public at large. It is essential that there should be a balance and healthy relationship between the citizens’ right to life, the public’s right to information and the Freedom of the Press. The freedom of the press is not absolute and unrestricted freedom of speech and expression will undoubtedly lead to the violation of the very human rights that the Media acts as a watchdog for. While heinous crimes and the concerned perpetrators must be called out and Media must be praised for this, deviation from unbiased reporting and usurping the functions of the Judiciary is not something to be celebrated. The protection of human rights is important as they have immense social, political and economic effects. Hence, the United Nations will always uphold “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
Dr. Justice Radhabinod Pal, Judge, High Court of Calcutta (Retd.)
Section 2(d), Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.
Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Ram Pyari v. Union of India, AIR 1988 Raj. 124
1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621
1981 AIR 746, 1981 SCR (2) 516
ZahiraHabiullah Sheikh v State of Gujarat; AIR 2006 SC 1367
Charter of the United Nations, Art. 55(c)