New Delhi: The influence of the Indian news media on criminal investigations and trials was on Saturday severely criticised by legal experts, most of whom said that the fourth estate was more focused on gaining TRP ratings and revenue, and less bothered about facts of a case. However, one of the experts while agreeing that there were many cons to media trial of cases, said this situation has arisen due to the public's lack of faith in the other three estates of the society -- legislature, executive and the judiciary. Senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Harish Salve and Abhishek Manu Singhvi were of the view that the media was more focused on sensationalising an event and less bothered about distortion of facts and how it influences an investigation or trial of a case. While agreeing with his colleagues that rules and limits of sub judice have been crossed by the media, senior advocate C A Sundaram said that the public was accepting the fourth estate and following it as the people had lost faith in the other three estates. "I want to play the devil's advocate. I heard everyone on how the media should behave. What about the other three estates? The point I want to make today is who is responsible for this? "If you had the first, second and third estates (legislature, executive and judiciary) behaving perfectly, the fourth estate would not be able to convert public opinion. Public opinion is listening to the fourth estate because of the failure of the other estates," Sundaram said. He said that if the other institutions are improved, then the media will not be able to portray itself as the court of public opinion as it is doing now. All four of the senior advocates were speaking at the 1st Ram Jethmalani Memorial Lecture, organised by NewsX, where the topic of discussion was 'Pros and Cons of Media Trials'. Speaking at the event via video conference, Sibal said the media looks at discovery of facts as a way to earn TRPs and to gain more audience, and they bother less about credibility and source. He said he believed the problem lies in the fact that most of the media houses are controlled by business people with deep economic interest in the society and is of the opinion that media houses should be standalone businesses. Sibal, who claimed that the investigating agencies are already working in tandem with the government, said the media try to sensationalise the event, even if they take to distorting the facts and can make a hero turn into a villain in no time at all. He said media influences the investigators which has been seen happening recently in Mumbai, in an apparent reference to the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, with respect to certain people in Bollywood being now persecuted and prosecuted by agencies. He said with the entry of social media, the situation has nosedived further and today the media has reincarnated itself into a public court. Salve also referred to the ongoing media coverage in Sushant Singh's death case and said it would scare anybody who has practiced law, who is familiar with how the criminal justice system works and who is concerned about how the criminal justice system should be. Salve said the atmosphere today is not conducive to the rule of law and it is the single biggest impediment to India's growth story and has also become one of the biggest negatives of Indian democracy. He said in cases where justice fails because of political interference or poor evidence or police apathy,the media takes up the cause and renders great service to the rule of law. However, the problem is when the media becomes a parallel system of rule of noise and when the rule of noise starts displacing the rule of law. "Indian criminal justice system in high profile cases has become a circus... and I don't think the media believes in any such thing called the law of evidence," he said, adding that trial by a judge through rule of evidence has been replaced by trial of embarrassment. "In India nobody is willing to have a hard look as to what ails our system. The media is baying for blood because there is an allegation of wrongdoing. So what does the investigating agency do, they give media false leaks, the accused is arrested, the bloodletting stops and the case falls," he said. He also criticised court-monitored investigations, saying they have completely destroyed the rule of law in India. Singhvi, in his speech, said, "Indian news has plummeted in the wrong direction of the equation between sense and sensationalism, between news and noise, between civility and chaos, and I would say between balance and extremism". He said the time may not be too far off when we would have to "invent new offences of verbal terrorism, visual extremism, content fundamentalism". "Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with the toxic triangle of viewership, ratings gained and revenue," he said. He claimed that "many (journalists) have mortgaged their calling, their training, and their consciousness to the lure of temporary wealth, power and property". "They have done this by becoming spokespersons of ideologies, of viewpoints, of persons, of authorities, of vested interest lobbies. But by and large this disease has not become the rule and remains the exception," he said. He further said that the media plays the role of a judge, jury, prosecutor and persecutor all rolled into one, because this is the best way to whip up a frenzy.
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