3 Instances When Media Trial Became the Messiah of Justice in India


Media has the power to influence people’s minds. So, it shoulders the weight of the responsibility to ensure only facts reach the public. It plays a paramount role in shaping and resonating the public opinion. The term ‘media trial’ was derived from Hollywood’s first scandal, the “where a Hollywood star accused of murdering an actress was held guilty by the media before the court him. The media is powerful enough to turn an innocent into a guilty without even conducting a proper investigation. However, there were some instances in India when the truth may have been left covered by the judiciary had the media not intervened. So, let’s understand three instances when the media trial became the messiah of justice.

Priyadarshini Mattoo case

The rape and murder of a law student named Priyadarshini Mattoo is an illustration of the lacunae in the Indian criminal system and the role of media activism. On January 23, 1996, the victim was raped, viciously beaten 14 times with a motorcycle helmet, and strangled with a wire until she died at her home in New Delhi, by her college-mate Santhosh Kumar Singh. Notably, the accused often stalked her and several FIRs were filed against him. This case was transferred from Delhi Police to the CBI, as the accused’s father was a Joint Commissioner of Police where the crime took place.

Media Trial

The media went frenzy over the trial court’s judgment in this case, which granted the benefit of the doubt and acquitted Santosh in 1999. It was observed that the CBI did not collect and deliver the evidence legally. It was also speculated that the accused’s family background influenced the judgment. Nationwide protests and media reportage started shedding light on the brutality of the murder and the loopholes in the Indian justice system. The victim’s household aid, someone the police claimed untraceable, was later found by a journalist. There was clearly a lack of proper investigation in the case. Due to media and public pressure, CBI appealed against the trial court’s verdict in the Delhi High Court in 2000.

Jessica Lal case

Media truly became the messiah of justice in the murder case of Jessica Lal. On April 29, 1999, Jessica Lal, a bar-maid at Qutub Colonnade in New Delhi was shot dead by a wealthy politician’s son, Manu Sharma, in the presence of over 80 people partying in the bar. The ridiculous reason for the murder was that Jessica refused to serve liquor to the Manu after the prescribed time. What followed next was not just the perfect display of the power of money and political influence in India but also the reason why media is popularly called the fourth pillar of democracy. Among the dozens of wealthy party attendees, except ten, everyone refused to testify the truth. Thankfully, one of them filed an FIR against Manu and his several friends. Though charged under many sections of IPC, the trial court acquitted all the accused as the Delhi Police failed to find the murder weapon and most witnesses turned hostile.

The unjust acquittal kindled the activist spirit in the media. News channels and magazines started sting operations and message campaigns and secretly filmed witnesses who confessed to having been bribed or threatened by the accused to remain hostile. The media also exposed the audio recording of Manu’s confession made in police custody. In this case, the media presented facts that the public could act on. The pressure from the media and public compelled the Delhi Police to appeal before the Delhi High Court against the trial court’s judgment. This time, key people like Bina Ramani and her husband, who threw the party during which the incident happened, deposed Manu. Finally, the High Court convicted Manu and his two friends. Manu was sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 50,000/-.The High Court observed that though this was a “trial by media”, it did not affect the court’s views.

Nirbhaya case

The ‘Delhi Gang Rape’ case, or the Nirbhaya case, is arguably the most gruesome rape case that ever came into the spotlight. On the night of December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern, who was returning from a theatre with her friend, was gang-raped and tortured inside a moving bus in New Delhi by six men. Out of the six, one was a juvenile. Further, the victim was mutilated beyond recognition. The juvenile inserted a rod inside her private parts, which tore her intestines to the point that the doctors found just 5 per cent of her intestines left inside her body. She died thirteen days later. This barbaric incident received fierce media coverage for several months, and rightly so. It sent shock waves across the nation and even made international headlines, questioning the sexual safety of women in India. Nationwide protests & mass agitation took place. Tens of thousands of rape cases are reported every year in India, but not many of them become as infamous as this case. The sheer bestiality of the crime and its extensive media coverage made it have a long-lasting impact on the people and the Indian legal system.

It made the Apex Court set up the J.S. Verma Committee to review the Indian legal system for sexual offences. Thanks to the expansive reportage, the Committee received over 80,000 public suggestions, following which the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 or the ‘Nirbhaya Act’ was passed. It made several crucial changes to the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), the Code of Civil Procedure, 1973 (CrPC), and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA). Notably, it added Sections 354A, 354B, 354C, and 354D to penalize sexual harassment, assault intending to disrobe women, voyeurism, and stalking, respectively. It also clubbed rape and murder into one offence of ‘rape resulting in death or vegetative state’ under Section 376A of IPC, punishable with rigorous imprisonment for at least twenty years, extendable to life imprisonment for the remainder of the offender’s life or death sentence. Media also played a vital role in identifying and condemning the fact that several precious moments of the victim’s life were lost while the Delhi Police were arguing to determine the apt jurisdiction. Ultimately, the concept of Zero FIR was introduced, which now allows any police station to lodge a complaint without any jurisdictional restriction. Also, the juvenile offender was released after spending three years in a rehabilitation home though media reports suggested that he was the most brutal among the six offenders. As a result of the extensive media push and public agitation, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 was passed which now allows juveniles aged 16- 18 years to be tried as adults in cases of heinous offences.


Nowadays, we see that many news channels are merely hungry for TRPs than responsible journalism. However, media has immense potential. Criminal cases like the ones discussed earlier proclaim the power it holds in influencing people and public authorities. They strike a chord with middle-class India because such incidents can happen to anyone. But with great power comes great responsibilities. Media often tends to put undue pressure on the judiciary, sensationalize narratives, spread uncorroborated information, and infringe on the accused’s privacy. It often ignores the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. The media’s role should be one of truth-seeking, balanced reporting, and facilitating informed discussions rather than becoming a source of false narratives.

Author: Jerusha Melanie, A student of SRM School of Lawin case of any queries please contact/write back to us via email to chhavi@khuranaandkhurana.com or at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorney.


  1. Media Trials in India: A Judicial View to Administration – JURIST – Commentary – Legal News & Commentary
  2. What happened to the juvenile rapist of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case: Here are the details (opindia.com)
  3. How the media coverage of the Nirbhaya case changed India | by Arkadev Ghoshal | NewsTracker | Medium
  4. What is the Jessica Lall murder case? | What Is News,The Indian Express
  5. My sister Jessica got justice due to media (dnaindia.com)

[1]‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Hollywood’s first scandal – BBC News

[2]My sister Jessica got justice due to media (dnaindia.com)

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