As a criminal lawyer, Rahul Thakur has watched lives being ripped apart by media reportage. And for the last eight years, he has been trying to fix this.

In 2007, Thakur filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court after dealing with scores of cases in which people were accused or arrested for a crime but later let off. However, by that time, the accused persons had had their lives exposed, their guilt presumed and their futures ruined because of press coverage.

“What really irked me was coming across photographs of the accused in the media,” Thakur, 37, said. “People’s lives have been destroyed by such reporting.” It was mostly the poor who were affected, he said. Unable to find jobs or hounded by neighbours, they were forced to leave the city even though cases against them had been closed.

The PIL seeks to get around this, by seeking police discretion in giving out information in cases where the chargesheet is yet to be filed.

Truth, not perception

The crime reporting landscape that Thakur wants to change could alter significantly now, if the Maharashtra state police seriously follow a circular the government issued last year.

In June this year, the state government informed the Bombay High Court of its decision to abide by a set of instructions contained in an October 2014 circular. The document ordered police and prosecutors not to disclose the identities of accused persons to the media, the methods of investigation or details about the family of the accused.

This means the police are forbidden from giving out information to the media on the basis of the lodging of a first information report – the initial complaint – and can do so only once the chargesheet – the formal document of accusation by the police – has been filed in court.

“Till the chargesheet is filed, it is only an allegation,” said Thakur. “People have a right to know, there is no doubt about it. But the people have a right to know the truth, not the perception of the truth portrayed by a section of the police.”

Thakur points to the state’s 6% conviction rate as evidence that a huge proportion of those accused was ultimately not found guilty.

Abandoning old practice

The new rule means that news reports should not contain names of the accused, victims, witnesses or the status of the investigation – details liable to hamper the case. The Mumbai police press notes, for instance, no longer mention names or personal details of accused persons, a departure from earlier practice.

“This is to ensure proper justice is done to the accused, the victims and their families,” said A Vagyani, the chief government pleader. “Nothing that could affect the course of the probe should be revealed.”

The circular is based on certain practical considerations. If the progress of the investigation is reported in the media, people might be able to take steps to destroy evidence. If the photos of witnesses are used, it could threaten their security. If accused persons’ photos are printed, it could impact the process of the identification parades. If the prosecution reveals details of the evidence at hand or what could be brought on trial, the nature of confessional statements. All these have the potential to distort the trial procedure.

Taking these factors into account, the court had previously highlighted the need to preserve the privacy of the victim as well as the rights of the accused. The police practice of divulging information, the court said, “may seriously affect the quality of the investigation. If pending the investigation, all the particulars of the investigation including the contents of the statements made by the witnesses during the investigation are revealed, the accused or persons involved in the crime can certainly take undue advantage”.

Thakur notes that the practice of feeding media information gained ground after police officers began boasting about encounter killings. It then extended to all kinds of crimes. “I was annoyed by the police parading the accused in the media,” said Thakur. “The accused would be made to sit near the heels of the officers and they were being paraded like trophy animals.”

Training stakeholders

In its latest order in June, the court said it was necessary to train people so as to effectively implement the government guidelines “in the larger interest of the administration of justice”. The court has sought a reply from the central government on its stand in the matter, though that is still awaited. The next hearing is slated for September.

So far, the onus has been on the police and the prosecutors to refrain from communicating such news to the media. Although the Press Council of India has been added as a party in the proceedings there have been no outright instructions to journalists themselves. In a previous order the court steered clear of this territory, remarking it was “really not entering into the wider issue regarding what can be printed or displayed by the media” but rather “with the administration of justice” and the “conduct of investigating officers and higher police officers of making disclosures” pending investigation.

“The question is about how much access should be given to the media, and what the media does with this access,” said Saurav Datta, who teaches media law in Mumbai. “No limitations or guidelines can be laid down in this regard because that would violate the freedom of the press. However, that doesn’t absolve either the media or the police/ investigating agency of certain responsibilities.”

Datta said that details of investigation contained in the police case diary could only be disclosed to the court. “However, the police selectively leak details to further their own agenda,” he continued. “Conversely, the media also requires access, otherwise how would it hold the police to account in case the investigation is being deliberately delayed or botched up?”

Worth the wait

There is no explicit prohibition on the media from reporting on bail applications or bail orders dealing with the accused before the chargesheet has been filed. There is also no bar on others involved in the case informing the media of various developments. For instance, if the complainant who has lodged the FIR informs reporters of this, or if the victim or a witness does so, the state can do little. Ultimately though responsibility lies with all sides. “At the end of the day, a balance has to be struck, and the onus is on both the media and the police to ensure that no one’s right to a free and fair trial is violated,” said Datta.

News reports, nevertheless, continue to carry details that the government circular forbids officers from disclosing – for instance, they published lawyer Jahnvi Gadkari’s name, family details and photos of family members even before the chargesheet was filed. Similarly, the alleged ISIS applicant’s name also appeared in public. “Right now media houses don’t know to what extent they can report,” said Thakur. He has set about to remedy this himself by speed posting the latest court order to all major news outlets about a fortnight ago.

It has now been eight years since he filed his PIL. “It has been worth it,” he said. “If it had taken 10 more years I would have still fought.”