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Delhi court objects to reports on Umar Khalid’s ‘confession’, reminds of basics on reporting

A chief metropolitan magistrate in Delhi notes media trials cannot destroy ‘presumption of innocence’, calls for self-regulation.

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New Delhi: A local court has taken strong exception to media reports on Northeast Delhi riots cases, particularly those related to activist Umar Khalid’s alleged confession, noting media trials cannot destroy “presumption of innocence”.

Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Northeast, Dinesh Kumar observed in his order Friday that news reports on Khalid’s statement to the police were reported without clarifying that such confessions are not admissible in evidence.

A reporter, the court added, should have basic knowledge of law and must educate readers or viewers about the factual legal status of such statements.

It reiterated that an individual’s reputation is his valuable asset and is a facet of his right under Article 21 of the Constitution. A news report that might deprive an accused of his dignity would have an adverse effect on his or her rights, it said.

The court order came on an application filed by the activist, who complained of media reports stating he had confessed to his involvement in the conspiracy behind the communal riots that took place in February 2020.

Khalid has been in custody since 14 September 2020.

Also read: Court bails Muslim man accused of being part of ‘Hindu mob’ — Delhi Police unlikely to appeal

Similar orders in Delhi riots cases

This is not the first time an accused in the Northeast Delhi riots case has moved the court against what they claim as “one-sided” reporting in connection with the communal violence.

Earlier, on a petition filed by an accused in the Delhi riots, student leader Asif Iqbal Tanha, the Delhi High Court had in October 2020 questioned Zee News for making public his purported “disclosure statement” in the case, saying the channel was not a prosecuting agency and that the document had “little evidentiary value” in trial. The HC had also said the report portrayed the statement as something that “completely indicts a person”.

Similarly, in June last year the HC had restrained the Delhi Police from issuing further communications naming any accused or any witness in the riots case involving Pinjra Tod activist Devangana Kalita until the charges, if any, are framed and trial begins.

In her petition, Kalita sought a writ of mandamus directing the Delhi Police to not leak any allegations pertaining to her to the media pending investigation, and thereafter during the trial.

The latest order also comes days after the Bombay High Court delivered a ruling that media trial during the stage of criminal investigation will amount to “criminal contempt”.

Also read: 65% death sentences by trial courts in 2020 involved sexual offences, study reveals

‘Riots not just anti-Hindus, all communities felt the consequences’

In his order, the chief metropolitan magistrate said, “The news reports have only highlighted that accused Umar Khalid had confessed his involvement… However, none of the news items is shown to have made a clarification to its readers/viewers that such a statement, even if actually made, could not be used by the prosecution as evidence.”

The court said a reporter should have a basic knowledge of law that a confessional statement made to a police official is not admissible as evidence in law and should inform an ordinary reader about the same while reporting an alleged confession.

According to the judge, readers and viewers consider news items as true. However, the general public might not be aware of the law.

“Therefore, it is the duty of the Press and Media to inform and educate its readers and viewers about all the relevant facts and circumstances of a news item published or shown on the News channel,” the CMM said.

The judge expressed specific objection to a news item that started with the words: “Radical Islamist and Anti-Hindu Delhi Riots accused Umar Khalid”.

The judge said this particular news report portrays the riots as anti-Hindus, which does not appear to be the case. According to him, all communities felt the consequences of the riots.

“Such news items might show to the public at large that accused Umar Khalid had in fact confessed/admitted his role in Delhi riots. However, it is the duty of the judicial system to decide a case on merits after trial,” said the court.

Media trial can’t destroy presumption of innocence

The media has the ability to mobilise the thinking process of a large number of the population, the judge said.

However, there exists a risk of prejudice being caused if the press and media fail to do their duty with care and caution. And, one such risk is that of “media trial”.

Reminding that the basic principle of criminal jurisprudence is presumption of innocence, the court said media trial cannot destroy this presumption.

“This should not be destroyed at the very threshold through the process of media trial. Protection of such presumption is essential for maintenance of the dignity of the courts and is one of the cardinal principles of the rule of law in a free democratic country,” the order said.

The court refrained from issuing any specific direction to the media, but made an appeal to exercise “self-regulation” so as not to cause prejudice to the rights of an accused during trial.

“Therefore, any news item should be published after verifying and clarifying all the facts related to the said news item,” it said.

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