Guide to ethical reportage of criminal cases

Noose on the Tamil Nadu Police Department has been tightened after the Madras High Court pulled up the Police force for divulging sensitive information related to a criminal case to media persons who published it along with pictures of the accused.  

In wake of this incident, the Tamil Nadu Police Chief, Director General of Police, Ashok Kumar recently issued a circular to all police personnel instructing them to not share every detail of a criminal case or of an investigative proceeding.

The media houses concerned also came under fire from the HC for unethical reportage of the case. Journalists have often drawn flak for putting out information that compromises the fate of the case.

Though guidelines have been issued for the same by the Press Council of India and Editors Guild of India, it is mostly a self-regulatory practise.

Adding to this A.S.Panneerselvan, the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu said, “Revealing sensitive information like the name of the accused or the victim leads to further stigmatisation by the society, character assassination or in some cases severe mental sabotage.”

Every media agency has different set of rules for publishing details of criminal proceedings, talking about The Hindu he said, “The most important rules for a just report on criminal cases are­ – minimising harm, respecting privacy and letting those concerned grieve.”

Sharing intricate details of cases that are sub judice often results in trial by media, that further polarises the public opinion.

Still there are no laws to check unethical reportage or media trials of criminal cases, to which Madras HC Advocate, Surith Parthasarthy said,” The right way to approach such cases is to act in public interest, if revealing certain information helps in shaping public opinion then it is fine, but these are exceptions – like the Nirbhaya rape case.”

However, guidelines are different for reportage on juvenile cases. The Press Council Act 1978 lays down rules to be followed by the media, keeping in mind the rights of children.

This includes prohibition on disclosing the identity of children, sharing details of a sexual exploitation case among other guidelines that protect the child from harm, stigmatisation and negative stereotypes.

Talking about the protocol followed by the police, R. Anita, Sub-Inspector at Kotturpuram Police Station said, “We are not allowed to give any details of criminal cases to the media, it is up to IPS officers to do that.”

She said that the police has no jurisdiction to dictate terms to journalists if they procure sensitive information from other sources.

At the same time adding that mostly it depends on the relationship officers share with journalists, “Information is mostly given off the record.”








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