India is a country with a population of 1.33 billion, the second-largest in the world. It suffers from extreme income inequalities. In 2017, it was estimated that the top 10% of the population held 77% of the total national wealth (Erin Duffin, 2020). Thus, a large part of the Indian community has to go through immense everyday struggle, mainly due to severe financial constraints as sometimes they are not even able to meet both ends and there are job stresses, severe climatic conditions in the major part of the country, daily long distance commute, family problems, etc. On top of this, many have to face gender and caste-based bias in their workplaces, colleges, society, etc. People are angry and frustrated because they feel that even after 72 years of Independence, their problems have not been addressed by successive governments. Many of them see no hope of any improvement in their living condition. Therefore, Media/Social Media provides a suitable platform and opportunity to vent out their anger. This facility is easily available without any cost and accountability. They also attract support from like-minded people who believe in their cause. Perhaps, this is one of the major reasons for the popularity of Media Trial.
Instances of rape provide such opportunity and the public vent out their anger and frustration towards the whole system because this is the issue with which most of the persons can connect themselves. It causes agitation, which at times leads to mass movements against sexual assault and rape of women and young girls. Few examples are- Nirbhaya gang rape (2012), Mumbai gang rape (2013), Unnao rape case (2017), Kathua rape case (2018), and many more.
In 2016, of the 3.38 lakh crimes against women, rape cases amounted to 11.5% of them. However, only 1 in 4 rape cases ends up in the conviction of the offender. Many of these offenders are politicians, MLAs, and legislators (almost 30%). Out of these rape cases, approximately 2100 are gang rape cases. (Priya Kapoor, TOI 2019). Therefore, at times the public resorts to taking law into their own hands and punishing these offenders as they have felt the judiciary was not able to deliver justice against these criminals and if at all it is delivered, it would be very much delayed, and punishment may not commensurate with the severity of the crime.
CASES INFLUENCED BY MEDIA TRIAL
In the Dimapur Lynching case of 2015 in Nagaland, a group of 3000-6000 mainly college students, marched to the Dimapur Central Prison and dragged-out Syed Sarifuddin Khan who was in jail for raping a woman. He was then brutally attacked and hanged by the mob. Two of the main reasons generally given for this attack are, that he was a Bangladeshi immigrant (later found to be Assamese Indian) and had raped a woman. During that time, rape cases were on the rise, so this became a case of women taking out their anger and frustration about their vulnerable condition and misuse of it by such men.
The Dimapur incident was a horrendous event where a man was stripped off his clothes, beaten, and then killed by a large group even though he was an alleged rapist. One editorial on March 6, described it as “the required message loud and clear to the administration” (The Hoot 2015). Many other newspapers also published articles criticizing the treatment extended to people of minority caste in Nagaland and the subsequent intolerance towards Bangladeshi immigrants by the states in the east. The protests by the public did not focus on the ‘beating of the innocent’ or ‘vigilante killing’ either. After some months, the matter died down altogether. Even though some of the people from the mob got arrested, none of them faced any trial. It was as if the people accepted the mob’s action that they were right in what they did, and the victim was a rapist who deserved to die. On the other hand, the Nirbhaya case was fierce and thus gained large-scale recognition. It focused the anger of the public against all the rape cases in a joint direction which came out through this case.
Recently a similar action was praised rather than being criticized. In November 2019, a female doctor was raped and killed by four men in Hyderabad. The case received broad recognition, and the offenders got arrested. However, within a few days after the incident, they were stated to have been killed in a police encounter. The policemen neither faced any investigation nor trial. They instead received the support of the public and were raised by them on their shoulders. Pictures of this celebration were uploaded on various media channels and received appreciation throughout the country. The encounter did not receive any criticism or negative evaluation. Once again ‘alleged rapists’ had been killed at the hands of the public. Therefore, it is of great significance to understand why the Dimapur incident never led to a large-scale movement and was subsequently forgotten while the episode of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case gathered large-scale recognition. Perhaps, it is the media, which took the side of the people (mob) as it was possibly the safer thing to do than facing public criticism towards their channel.
KM Nanavati v State of Maharashtra was the first case of ‘trial by media’.In the case, Nanavati was arrested for having killed a businessman by entering into his house and shooting him thrice. The incident was a clear case of a planned murder. Still, Nanavati was let free by the subordinate court as the media did not want him to face punishment, and the broader public sentiment was in support of it. This error was rectified by the High Court which convicted Nanavati of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The court held that the media had influenced the jury, which in turn led to incorrect judgment. The jury system in India was abolished as a result of this case.
Another such case was that of Sanjay Dutt v State (1994), the Bollywood actor, who was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), for being involved in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case. He was labelled as a ‘terrorist’ after the arrest as the public was made to believe the same by the media. Later he was absolved of the charged of terrorism and was only sentenced to jail under the Arms and Ammunitions Act for having illegal possession of AK-56 rifles. The charges of terrorism against him were never proved, but till now, he is called a terrorist by many. Therefore, this was another case that led to harm to the reputation of an individual by the media.
TRIAL BY SOCIAL MEDIA
Another form of media that has led to the conviction of many men involved in sexual assault and rape is Social Media, including popular social networking apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, etc. Popular movements have begun on these platforms which have seen large-scale involvement of people demanding justice. One such recent move was the #Metoo movement that witnessed participation from over 140 countries where women chose to raise their voices against men who had sexually assaulted, defamed, or raped them. It started after a call to action by the actress Alyssa Milano. She accused the director ‘Harvey Weinstein’ of having sexually harassed her and encouraged other women to write ‘metoo’ on her post if they too had faced something similar in their past. Her post was filled with such comments from over 68 thousand women who had been assaulted in the past in their workplaces, homes, etc. and within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world had engaged in the ‘#metoo’ conversation with over 12m posts and tweets (Nadia Khomami 2017). The ‘metoo’ movement was adopted in India after actress Tanushree Dutta blamed actor Alok Nath for sexual assault. After the reporting of sexual assaults and harassment in India increased massively. (500% increase in cases reported by Ultratech, Indian Oil Corp and Hindalco)
This movement provided a space for women to voice many personal stories of anger and frustration that had been buried under years of silence. It was successful in pushing urban societies to introspect the value system that considers it reasonable to harass women by entitled men who misuse this privilege granted to them by the system itself and through the years of patriarchy and subjugation of women in all spheres of life. Similar movements have emerged post #metoo in the past years like ‘time’s up’ which was started by Hollywood celebrities against the sexual assault and harassment faced by women and ‘#notokay’ which began on Twitter after a 2005 video of President Donald Trump was released in which he was seen making sexual comments about women.
The internet age has better-equipped people to deal with these issues. Social media has democratized feminism, helping women to share experiences of sexual violence, such as on the HarassMap platform launched in Egypt, build solidarity, as seen with the #YesAllWoman hashtag that trended for weeks after Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California, or keep international attention on events that slipped off the news agenda, such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign launched after the abduction of more than 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria (Nadia Khomami 2017).
A very recent example (May 2020) is the one of ‘Boy’s locker room’ which gained subsequent attention by young adults on Instagram who shared and re-posted the incident. A group of 17-20 boys was formed in which they circulated private pictures of girls (their classmates, girlfriends, friends) and commented on them disrespectfully. All these boys have been found to come from affluent families and are from prominent south Delhi schools. Many of the girls they ‘discussed’ were underage. This led to agitation among their classmates and people from other schools and colleges who spread the screenshots of the messages further. Many of the boys were tracked down, arrested, and questioned in front of their parents. Few boys argued that their profiles were hacked and misused as they were never a part of the group. Only a few days later, a group called ‘Girls Locker room’ was busted on Instagram, which consisted of girls indulging in similar kinds of activity against boys. These two incidents are different but stem from the same mentality which needs attention. It once again raises the question of the upbringing of these children and the discussion of ‘who is at fault’ behind this. It also brings up the drawbacks of social media wherein anyone can quickly post or say anything without considering its consequences. A piece of recent news stated that a Gurgaon boy, aged 17 years committed suicide after receiving threat calls from the friends of the girl who had accused him of sexual assault on Social media. Even though the suicide does not absolve the boy of the ‘alleged sexual assault’, it also does not convict him of the same. After such events, the judiciary and the government are left to take up the accountability and have to face criticism for having failed to ‘avoid’ such incidents.
Even though such movements or events have led to the arrest of many offenders and have proved as a deterrence for the other’ potential offenders’, the sanctity of such method of justice delivery in the eyes of the young population today, remains worrisome and doubtful. The success of these movements and trials by media is always glorified and encouraged; however, it leads to severe curtailment of ‘accurate justice delivery’ wherein some women are free to use their story of sexual assault as a ‘bargaining chip’ to get what they want. With their one post or tweet, the life of the alleged man is forever destroyed. The problematic angle of posting such posts or comments is that there is no proof provided, and as said by Judith Butler “whoever speaks is assumed to speak the truth”. On the other hand, if such cases are brought to the court then the concerned girl/woman will have to provide evidence to prove their claim and after a trial, the court will decide whether the alleged offender is a culprit or not. However, on social media, the fate of the man is left to be determined by the public who in turn give decisions based on their own bias. It is on media, where the trial begins, continues, and ends wherein the public or media pronounces the judgment and, in some cases, the life of the man is shattered forever. He is not even given a chance to explain his side and to confront that woman about the veracity of her allegations against him. They cannot also take the help of the court as the trial has not been presented before it and in cases where they are innocent, they cannot file an appeal or a lawsuit of ‘malicious prosecution’ against the woman who framed them for her benefit.
It is true that in India, the average pendency of a criminal trial ranges from 3-6 years which is much higher than the length of criminal prosecution in the UK (2-3months) and US (1-2weeks). People are upset and frustrated with the judiciary and the entire system of administration. Therefore, many trials in India take place outside the court, and the primary adjudicator of justice is the media. Media is one of the four pillars of democracy and its role cannot be undermined and is essential to the basic functioning of the society as without it we wouldn’t know what was happening in other parts of the country. However, sensationalized news stories circulated by the media have posed a significant threat to the guarantees of a right to a fair trial. It declares the verdict of an on-going case in the court and thus shapes the views of the public. The opinion of media causes interference in the due procedure of law and its objective of providing ‘impartial and unbiased judgment’. “The media should not be judge and jury while ensuring that the truth is told” (BachiKarkaria TOI 2017). Also, it is not right on the part of the media to decide whether a case should be publicized or not, and in a situation where they see no advantage or profit, they cannot choose to undermine it or take the side of the public even when they are wrong such as in the case of Dimapur Lynching and Hyderabad rape case. In the end, there is no doubt that media plays an important role in bringing the issue to the knowledge of a large section of people, but it must act responsibly and not with the sole objective of increasing the TRP. Similarly, in the case of Social media, it has to mature. The users must differentiate between facts and sentiments and between reality and fiction before forming any opinion. This is the call of the present time and media as well as social media must honor their social responsibility.
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