The Arrest of a Bollywood Actor in India Shows All That's Wrong With Media Trials

The frenzy around the case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the arrest of his former girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty is the latest case study into how voyeuristic news coverage shapes public opinion.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, India
September 10, 2020, 3:58am
bollywood sushant singh rajput rhea chakraborty media trial
Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty has been at the centre of the case around the death of Bollywood actor and former boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput. Photo by Sujit Jaiswal / AFP

On September 8, Bollywood actor Rhea Chakraborty, 28, was arrested on charges of allegedly buying cannabis for her former boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR). SSR, 34, was found dead on June 14. Initial investigation suggested that he died by suicide. Since then, the blame quickly shifted to Chakraborty when SSR’s family registered a police complaint accusing her of abetment to suicide.

Chakraborty was arrested by India’s narcotics control authority. Between the police complaint by SSR’s family and Chakraborty’s arrest, feverish media attention drove most of the development in the case.

As Chakraborty and her family were accused, harassed and even mobbed by press crew, critics described the exercise as a media trial—the act of declaring the accused a convict and influencing public opinion before the court has given its judgment.

Headlines such as “Did Rhea Perform Black Magic on Sushant?”, “Sushant’s Love, Rhea’s Weapon” and “Love Sex Dhokha: Sushant Death Probe” flashed on TV news channels, accusing Chakraborty of an alleged crime that is still being investigated.

Last month, three activists filed a petition in the Bombay High Court to limit and direct the SSR coverage on TV news channels to avoid media trial. They argued that media trials hamper investigations. Former senior police officials also moved the court against the “unfair, malicious and false media campaign.”

Chakraborty herself filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court alleging that the media is “unfairly holding trial” and has “already convicted” her.

Krishna Prasad, senior journalist and former editor-in-chief of Indian news magazine Outlook, told VICE News that their coverage should be called media executions rather than trials. “‘Media trial’ is a misnomer; it’s media execution,” he said. “In a trial, the two sides are weighed against each other. What we are seeing is a guillotine, a summary hanging.”

Recent data by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) shows that out of 298 million households in India, around 197 million have TV sets with cable connections and other network services.

India’s television channels gave more airtime to SSR’s case than political stories or the surging COVID-19 tally, per BARC data. At 4.3 million, India has the second-highest confirmed novel coronavirus cases in the world.

Independent media outlet Newslaundry also noted the voyeuristic nature of the SSR case coverage on TV screens and social media, where viewers become the jurists and there is a quest for justice for a crime not yet proven.

Some industry experts compared the media trial of the SSR case with the coverage of the OJ Simpson case in the 1990s. The former American National Football League player was tried and acquitted of the murder of his former wife and her friend. A lawyer involved in the OJ Simpson case noted that the media coverage was akin to entertainment, not news. “The SSR case has the same kind of vicarious interest by the Indian media,” Mumbai-based independent journalist Kalpana Sharma told VICE News.

The coverage also fuelled the news channels’ race for Television Rating Point (TRP)—an index that shows the popularity of a channel or programme. A news report revealed that the total numbers of viewers for English channels showing the SSR coverage tripled within weeks. The nature of the coverage, say experts, is the main reason for the surge in viewership.

“There is a mad sense of insecurity in all sectors of the media, which manifests in a competitive race,” Sukumar Muralidharan, a journalism professor at OP Jindal Global University in the northern Indian state of Haryana, told VICE News. “When everyone is in a race to the bottom, the worst of them win."

On September 8, a journalist who worked at Republic TV, an English language news channel, announced her departure from the organisation, citing the channel’s “aggressive agenda” to vilify and frame Chakraborty.

The Press Council of India, a self-regulatory watchdog of the press, issued an advisory to TV channels including Republic TV, stating that coverage of the SSR case is “in violation of the norms of journalistic conduct”.

Muralidharan added that a big reason why media trials are not held accountable is that most media watchdogs are either toothless or have tedious processes to address violations. “At the moment, only one authoritatively decided case will serve to set, if possible, a binding precedent. There seems no other way,” he said.

One of the earliest cases in India that were subjected to media trial was the Nanavati case in 1959, in which a Naval commander named Kawas Nanavati shot his wife’s lover. A weekly tabloid called Blitz helped turn public opinion in Nanavati’s favour by portraying him as the wronged husband.

Recent cases include the murder of a teenager, Arushi Talwar, in 2008 in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, which saw speculations and defamatory stories in the media about the victim. It led to the arrest of Talwar’s parents as prime suspects. The case remains unsolved.

In 2012, popular news anchors were seen baying for the death penalty for four Indian men who gang raped and murdered a paramedical student in New Delhi. The pressure from the media and the public eventually led to their executions.

Kalpana Sharma said that the deterioration of 24x7 television news, which is largely responsible for media trials in India today, started in the 1990s when the concept of paid news—content that is paid for by an institution—became common. “When you recast news as anything that sells, then [the SSR case] is the logical conclusion,” she said.

“Each time this happens, there’s outrage and frustration. But journalism in India has already been sold to the highest bidder, be it political or corporate,” added Sharma.

There have also been upsides of media. In 1996, Santosh Singh, who raped and murdered a college student Priyadarshini Mattoo, was acquitted by the court. Media outrage over the case led to the Central Bureau of Investigation, convicting Santosh Singh in 2006. In another famous case from 1999, a man called Manu Sharma who murdered model Jessica Lal was accused and acquitted despite witnesses, but was found guilty after intense media pressure.

Prasad said that there are strong cases for media trials. “There’s a case to be made for the media to play more than just a stenographic role in a nation of searing inequality, inhumanity and injustice,” he said. “But such proactivity has to go far beyond urban, middle-class India into its remote and rural parts where atrocities abound.”

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