Media Trial: A tussle between Freedom of Speech and Fair Trial


Freedom of free speech and expression enables people to think, think freely, express, protest, agree, and disagree through words of mouth, print, writing, gestures or any other mode of communication, without fear of repercussions. Freedom of speech is the essence of democracy as it empowers the people just how people empower the government. Media and press are popularly known as the 4th pillar of democracy. Free speech minds the masses, makes them aware and enlightened, helping them become better citizens. A major part of this is achieved through the media. However, at times, this freedom to the media hampers another’s rights.

Keywords- freedom, expression, democracy, media


“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – Rousseau

For over 200 years, Indians were subjected to their colonial masters and they worked, ate, lived as they were told. Freedom had little or no meaning for Indians in the pre-independence era. The word ‘freedom’ post-independence found a whole new meaning and perspective in the hearts and souls of Indians. The makers of our Constitution were aware of the new sense of pride which the word freedom brought along. Freedom, along with democracy, gave prestige and pride to Indians, which needed to be united along the same lines. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution [1] ensures the very same freedom Indians had longed for years. Freedom of Media further strengthens the Right to Information Act introduced in 2005. Access to unfiltered information and various shades of opinion is the essence of democracy. Having said so, even though fundamental rights enable power to its people, they  also come with certain ‘reasonable restrictions’ meaning that these freedoms are not absolute.

The Right to Fair Trial has been held to be part of the Right to Life and Liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution[2]. The “Right to Fair Trial”, means a fair trial by a trial judge which is not impartial and treats everyone equally. A fair trial is one of the basic features of human rights. Over the years, with an increasing presence of media and electronic media, the role of media has evolved. Earlier, the media was responsible to publicize factual information or current affairs to its viewers. With the age of advertisements, media is now directly linked to also earning revenues, the more the viewership, the better the revenue earned from advertisements. In this rat’s race, media houses tend to sensationalize important issues and cases to garner more and more views. Investigative Journalism has now become the mainstream, which leads to giving publicity to accused, victims, witnesses, etc which very often leads to many becoming hostile, scaring the witnesses and influencing the general public at large and hence hampering the normal functioning of the courts. This is where the freedom of speech of one (freedom of media) interjects Right to Fair trial of another. 

Perspective- India and International

Media trials could sound like new. In India, perhaps, given the country’s history of the proliferation of TV channels is barely a quarter-century old. At a global level, media trials date back to the early 20th century—though this term didn’t exist, say, the 1920s when they did find a space in journalism. However, in a democracy, the right of a free press and the right of fair trial must be balanced and given a safe space to co-exist. The United States of America, England and India are the torchbearers of democracy and examples to the world. India is the world’s largest democracy. The three Constitutions, whether written or unwritten, proclaim, protect and promote the same set of fundamental rights: both the First Amendment of the American Constitution [3] and Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution [4] guarantee the freedom of speech and expression. The Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution protects the right to life, liberty and property; India constitution, likewise, protects life and personal liberties. The Sixth Amendment of the American Constitution likewise protects and ensures the Right to a Speedy and Public trial, by an impartial jury. Although we no longer have trial by jury, our Constitution also ensures the same right of fair trial. Even though England has an unwritten constitution, it works on similar lines. Therefore, the three countries share a common ideology when it comes to taking a stand between the freedoms of speech versus fair trial.

Case Laws

In several cases, media was credited for their intervention but sometimes, media was also criticized for the innocent people ignoring the importance of account.

As in the case of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India[5], it was concluded that freedom of speech plays an integral role in forming public opinion and is the mother of all other liberties.

It is important to note that one’s liberty should not interfere or offend that of another’s.

In the case of the AK Gopalan case [6]  Patanjali Shastri observed that “man as a rational being desires to do many things but in a civil society his desires will have to be controlled with the exercise of similar desires by other individuals.

Due to media trials, there are high possibilities of the judge being influenced. In the Rajendra Jawanmal Gandhi case[7] , the Apex Court observed: A trial by press, electronic media or public agitation is the very antithesis of the rule of law. It can well lead to a miscarriage of justice. A Judge has to guard himself against any such pressure and he is to be guided strictly by the rules of law.

Trial by media reached its zenith in the recent Sushant Singh Rajput Case. Even though the deceased family found it overwhelming to get so much media attention for the speedy justice of their lost member, this death of a young talented actor in no time turned into show business for many media houses. In the name of investigative journalism to get to the truth, knowingly or unknowingly, the rights of the accused got highly infringed. Presumption of innocence, and international human right under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 was overlooked by large. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the media formed biased opinions without much authenticity.


Every right that our constitution guarantees us is of equal importance. No right can surpass another in any circumstance. In some situations, the two pillars, fair trials by judiciary and freedom of the press by media coincide. Often, there’s a tussle between freedom of speech and fair trial. The courts should keep in mind the consequences of media trial while taking the related decision at the same time not diminishing the power of the 4th pillar of our democracy. While the freedom of speech and expression of the media, the right to know of the people need to be protected and promoted, the right to a fair trial of the accused needs to be secured and guaranteed.


[1] India Const. art. 19. 

[2] India Const. art 21.

[3] United States Const. Bill of Rights. 

[4] India Const. art. 19 § 1, cl a 

[5] Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. V. Union of India & others (1985) 2 SCR 287.  

[6] Ak Gopalan v. The State Of Madras. Union of India, AIR 1950 SC 27 (India) 

[7] The State Of Maharashtra v. Rajendra Jawanmal Gandhi, (1997) 3 SCC 285

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s