Presumption of innocence

The media overlooked the principles of ethical juridical coverage while tracking Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and its sordid aftermath

Media, particularly television, coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide — I will call the manner of his death so until established otherwise — and its aftermath has raised questions. Avoiding the mutually accusatory statements that have been doing the rounds, I would rather focus on some of the deeper issues involved. The first is whether the extent of coverage extended to it is justified.

The event, doubtless, was most tragic. A young man, who has given much to Indian cinema, and could have given more, has been cut short in his prime. The unnatural nature of his passing, the allegations and counter-allegations ranging over it, the controversy about who should investigate it, the Centre’s decision to put the CBI in charge, the Supreme Court’s verdict endorsing the transfer and the subsequent developments, certainly merited media coverage. But did it have to take up huge chunks of prime-time coverage on most channels since June 14 when the alleged suicide occurred?

The question is relevant when the country is facing a serious threat of Chinese aggression, a raging and escalating COVID-19 pandemic and an economy in crisis — to mention three of the most important challenges. The argument that these are also receiving attention raises the question: Is the attention of the deserved quality and extent? The question can be countered by two arguments. First, any answer, in the negative or affirmative, will involve a large measure of subjective judgement and, hence, cannot be regarded as definitive. The second can be that viewers want the kind of coverage provided.

As to the first, all judgments on all issues are subjective in the sense that whatever the quality of the evidence, a person or a group must assess it and come to a conclusion. The assessment is by individuals who have their own predilections and orientations, which they may or may not be able to overcome. But then, a society would not have been able to function if it did not proceed by accepting as valid judgements that, under the normative criteria embedded in its underlying social contract, passed the tests of rationality and morality.

Here, rationality dictates the question: Whether Rajput’s death and its sordid aftermath has greater relevance to the lives of the country and its people than the Chinese aggression, the COVID-19 pandemic and/or the economic crisis? One can argue that the aftermath’s importance can hardly be under-stated because it is leading to the unravelling of the Bollywood drug network, which in turn may lead to the eradication of the drug trade’s tentacles throughout the country. Against this, one has the Union Minister of State G Kishan Reddy’s written reply to a question by a Congress MP, K Sudhakaran, in the Lok Sabha on September 15 stating, “Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) carries out search, seizure, arrest and investigation continuously throughout the year on the actionable inputs developed on its own and/or on receipt from other sources. During the period of COVID-19 lockdown, no such actionable inputs were received by the NCB revealing the nexus between people in the film industry and drug traffickers.”  He, however, added, “However, a case in this regard has been registered by NCB Mumbai zonal unit on August 28, 2020. Till date, in this case 10 persons have been arrested. Drugs such as GanjaHashish, Tetra Hydro Cannabinol and Lysergic acid De-ethylamide have been seized in the operation.”

Clearly, one has to see what the NCB produces. Until then it would be a bit too much to cite the possibility of its unearthing a pan-India drug racket to justify the massive coverage given to the train of events following Rajput’s death. This leads to the second justification cited above: Viewers want it. This may be true given that the titillation and voyeuristic pleasure that a very large number of people get from watching the lives of celebrities unscramble or the aftermath of a shocking tragedy unfold.

The mere fact that people want to see something does not make it acceptable. Time was when nothing was considered wrong with masses assembled in Rome’s Colosseum roaring in applause as a gladiator killed another or a lion. Even now, many in Spain are happy to witness bullfights in which matadors kill bulls in unequal combat, and thousands participate in jallikattu in South India in which bulls suffer horribly.

Clearly, popular participation or viewing does not by itself justify an event or its extensive and approbatory coverage —especially when it diverts attention from critical issues facing a country and trivialises discourse in what the German social philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, calls the “public sphere.” The latter, he states in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), is a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space. In its ideal form, the public sphere is “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state.” It is a space where private individuals discuss public matters, which mediates between society and the state, leading to a critical consensus translating itself into a coherent public opinion, which makes the state accountable to citizens.

The media has a critical role in providing information for discussion in the public sphere. It, however, also has a responsibility to ensure that investigations proceed along right lines. Investigating and prosecuting agencies charged with delivering criminal justice are known to make mistakes and even frame innocent persons, often when under pressure to solve a crime. This writer’s decision to become a journalist has been significantly influenced by his witnessing, as a school student in the early 1950s, the film Call Northside 777. Directed by Henry Hathaway, it was based on the real life efforts by a Chicago Daily Times reporter, James McGuire, undertaken at the behest of the city editor, Karin Walsh, that led to the release of Joseph Majczek, wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer and serving a 99-year prison term.

One, however, must proceed with extreme caution. Pressures on investigative agencies to produce results can make probes go horribly wrong, leading to prolonged, rough interrogation, arrest and prosecution of innocent people whose lives are devastated in the process even if the judiciary exonerates them in the end. The matter reminds one of the title of Malcom Feeley’s much-discussed book, The Process is the Punishment: Handling Cases in a Lower Criminal Court, first published in 1979. Doubtless, the book deals with lower criminal courts in the US and not India. Also, we are talking here not just about lower criminal courts but the entire process. It can be a long haul, involving expenses in the form of lawyers’ fees and transport, time spent in preparations, which often involves time taken off from income-generating activities and, of course, stress and worry.

Should a person, eventually proved innocent, have been made to suffer all this because media pressure led to him/her being pronounced guilty? This does not mean that investigative journalism should not extend to cases under investigation. But it does mean scrupulous observance of the canons of fair play and integrity and two cardinal principles of democratic, libertarian jurisprudence, wedded to respect for human rights.

The first is enshrined in Article 11(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It reads, “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”

It is also incorporated in The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, originally Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which came into force on 3 September 1953. It states in Article 6(2), “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”

The famous English jurist, William Blackstone, articulated the second principle when he wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of England, “..all presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously, for the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, went further and said, in a letter in March,1785, “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.” Journalists should remember both, always.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and author)

Source: The Pioneer