The Supreme Court has directed the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to prepare comprehensive guidelines for media briefings by police, and further directed the Directors General of Police to provide their suggestions within a month in consultation with stakeholders, including media organizations and the National Human Rights Commission.

The Court held, "It is equally important to emphasise that the nature of the disclosure which is made by the police in the course of media briefings should be objective in nature and should not consist of a subjective opinion pre-judging the guilt of the accused. The guidelines must duly factor in the need to ensure that the disclosure doesnot result in a media trial so as to allow for the pre-judging of the guilt of the accused. Media trials are liable to result in a derailment of justice by impacting upon the evidence which would be adduced and its assessment by the adjudicating authorities."

A three-judge Bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha and Justice Manoj Misra held that, “Bearing in mind the above aspects, we are of the view that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs should prepare a comprehensive manual on media briefings by police personnel.”

The Court added, “We direct that all the Directors General of Police shall, within a period of one month from the date of this order, communicate to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs their suggestions for the preparation of appropriate guidelines. Thereafter, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs shall proceed to prepare the guidelines after considering the views which have been received from the Directors General of Police and after consulting other stake holders including representative segments of the print and electronic media who may have 10 suggestions on the issue. Organisations representing the print and electronic media should also be consulted.”

In this batch of cases, two significant issues were raised:

  • the procedure for police investigation in police encounters, and
  • the propriety and procedure of police personnel's media briefings during ongoing criminal investigations, especially in cases of public interest.

The Court stated that the first issue regarding police encounters has been addressed in a previous judgment of People’s Union for Civil Liberties v State of Maharashtra, (2014) 10 SCC 635.

The second issue focuses on how police should conduct media briefings during ongoing criminal investigations, given the impact of media reporting on public perception.

To address these issues, Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan was appointed as Amicus Curiae by the Court and Adocate Shobha Gupta appeared for the Respondents.

The Court noted that a questionnaire was circulated to States and Union Territories, and several responded. Observations were also submitted by the People's Union for Civil Liberties.

The Court observed that media reporting on crimes involves the right to free speech and expression, but it must be balanced with considerations such as the right to a fair investigation for the accused and the privacy and dignity of victims or survivors of crimes. The Court added, “While a disclosure by the media of relevant details involves public interest associated with the fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, equally, the rights of the accused and of the victims or, as the case may be, survivors of crimes have a direct bearing on the fundamental right to life and personal liberty which is protected by Article 21.”

The Court discussed Explanation to Section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, which restricts media reporting on criminal proceedings until specific stages are reached.

The Amicus Curiae presented suggestions for guidelines on media briefings by police, including who can brief the media, when it can be done, and what information can be shared. The Court reproduced the questions raised as below:

“1. Who can brief the media?

2. At what stage is the briefing done?

3. How much information is to be shared at each stage?

4. What information cannot be shared?

5. Is the information to be shared or conveyed verbally or in writing?

6. What safeguards to be followed (no names of victims, no photos of accused who have to stand Test Identification Parade, no opinions/judgments, no disclosure of line of investigation or technical knowhow, no information in National Security issues)

7. Whether copies of Press Releases are maintained by the police department?

8. Disciplinary action against officers who do not abide by instructions.”

The Court stated, “The guidelines of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs were prepared over a decade ago on 1 April 2010. Since then, with the upsurge in the reporting of crime not only in the print media, but in the electronic and social media, it becomes extremely important that there should be a Standard Operating Procedure which balances out the considerations which we have noted above.” The SOP should appoint nodal officers to provide official investigation updates, preventing speculative reporting that could harm public interest, the accused, witnesses, victims, and survivors.

The Court said, “There can be no denying the fact that the disclosure of an official version of the investigation would ensure against speculative crime reporting, which may be of a dis-service both to the public interest involved and the interest of the accused, prospective witnesses as well as the victims and survivors of crime.”

Additionally, these guidelines should prevent media trials that could disrupt the legal process and evidence assessment. The Court added, “There is, in that sense, a need to have a uniform policy which can be adopted for nominating nodal officers who would be available to share the official version at the stage of investigation, consistent with the need to ensure that the disclosure itself does not derail the course of the investigation.”

The Court further stated, “The view point of the National Human Rights Commission shall also be duly taken into consideration.”

The Court directed that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs should share the guidelines with relevant parties and the case will be listed again in second week of January 2024.

Cause Title: People’s Union for Civil Liberties & Anr. v. The State of Maharashtra & Ors., [2023INSC833]

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