Trial by media, mob justice and the intricacies of the law

Trial by media, mob justice and the intricacies of the law

By DUSHYANT ARORA | | 5 September, 2015
The Pillory by the 19th-century British artist William Pyne.
Media trials and Twitter outrage have come to define the standards of public discourse in our age. But according to Dushyant Arora, a practising lawyer, the law doesn’t follow such simplistic codes.
What is everyone outraging about today? is a question often asked with complete sincerity on Twitter. Over the past week, the lives of two women, Jasleen Kaur and Indrani Mukerjea, have been the focus of discussion in social and mainstream media. The interest of the general public, as well as the media, in the allegations against Indrani stems from the fact that there is a murder mystery, and that this murder mystery involves someone relatively well-known. We are a society with an insatiable appetite for gossip. No one understands this better than the good folks who produce/sell content for television. With shows like Bigg Boss, television feeds this appetite and manufactures scandal when enough isn’t available otherwise. 
The story of the discourse surrounding the claims of sexual harassment made by Jasleen, however, isn’t one which is limited to the pursuit of sheer gossip or a general interest in a whodunit. It starts with people believing that they’re espousing a cause and are engaging in activism, and ends with a bitter debate between members of the male and female gender. In both the cases (Indrani and Jasleen) there was swift pronouncement of guilt by the general public (speaking through social media) and also by journalists in the mainstream media. In Jasleen’s case, this pronouncement of guilt was issued twice with radically different conclusions, in a short span of twenty-four hours. 
Jasleen uploaded a picture of a man named Sarvjeet Singh on her Facebook profile, claiming that he had passed lewd remarks when she attempted to stop him from jumping a red light. She then clicked a photo of his, while he allegedly challenged her to do what she could and wait for his response. She went to the Tilak Marg Police Station where a FIR was promptly registered. Singh was arrested shortly thereafter.
Thus began the outrage and public shaming on social media. Disturbingly, the Delhi Police, upon whom the bounden duty of investigating all complaints impartially has been cast, announced a monetary reward of five thousand rupees for Jasleen. Television channels joined in swiftly, many describing Singh as a “lout” and a “pervert”. The version of events proffered by Jasleen was accepted at face value and thousands of people began tweeting in her support.Soon thereafter a man came forward claiming that he had witnessed the altercation between Jasleen and Singh and that Jasleen was lying. He claimed that the incident was simply a heated exchange of words devoid of any sexual colour whatsoever. The outrage suddenly took a 180-degree turn.
I am not arguing that false cases are not filed. In every law there exists an inherent potential for abuse, but penal laws are (ideally) passed to deter and punish the commission of the larger social evil, which in this case is sexual harassment of women. It needs to be understood that the burden of proof already operates to the disadvantage of women: it is impossible for women to “prove” that they were groped when alone or prove that a person made sexually offensive comments. 
Blindly believing the version offered by this self-proclaimed witness, people lamented as to why Jasleen’s version had been blindly believed. While pronouncing Jasleen guilty of lying, people claimed that everyone must be assumed to be innocent before being proven guilty. Allegations began floating around that Jasleen was in fact a member of the Aam Aadmi Party and the incident had been orchestrated by her for furthering her political career. I paused when I read this attempt at giving the incident political overtones and tried to visualise how this act of seeking political mileage must have been carried out. Did Jasleen choose a particular red light and cross it several times with the hope that someone will try to jump it? Would she have felt a tinge of disappointment when say the first time she caught someone jumping the red-light, the chap apologised and backed off? Would a CCTV video of the red light show Jasleen crossing the traffic signal several times and expressing exasperation at not getting anyone to fight with her? Wouldn’t it be better to have a person with a video camera waiting for the moment she finally traps an unsuspecting political opponent? Did she ask Singh whether he belonged to the AAP himself to avoid any embarrassment? But if those alleging a political angle to the whole incident are to be believed, she probably was lucky the first time she crossed the road and found someone who was happy to enter into an argument with her. But, I digress.
There can be no argument against the fact that Singh should have been presumed innocent until proven guilty. But does assuming the innocence of the accused necessitate assuming the accuser is guilty of lying? In a court of law, each party is given the benefit of cross examining the “witness” whose testimony is discarded if it is found doubtful or believed if it stands the test of cross examination. In the media and on Twitter, judgment is free of such unnecessary technicalities. The possibility of the witness lying or seeking political mileage or just fifteen seconds of fame didn’t gain any currency.
The objective behind outrage/activism should be two-fold: 1) To raise awareness; and 2) To pressurise an overburdened, inefficient and sometimes corrupt system to act. Both objectives were achieved in the Sanjeev Nanda case; which is a stellar example of the voice of the general public being amplified ably by the media and leading to justice.
In Jasleen’s case the discourse achieved none of the above. Firstly, the character assassination of an accused by calling him a “lout” and a “pervert” on national television does not aid in raising awareness. Similarly those who believe that the law pertaining to crimes against women unduly impinges on the liberty of men, did themselves no favour by making absurd allegations of Jasleen having orchestrated the incident for political mileage. Secondly, there was no need to create any pressure on the state agencies because whatever could have been done had been done. The Delhi Police had acted promptly to register an FIR. There was no question of police inaction or apathy.
The debate about the incident concluded with a dominant sentiment that there is an epidemic of women exploiting laws to falsely frame men. As a side note, I feel duty bound to dispel this phantom since I’m a practising lawyer. Try a small experiment: ask ten men around you if they have ever been falsely accused of a crime against women and ask ten women if they have ever been eve-teased or groped in their life. I can assure you that each woman would come back to you with an answer in the affirmative. Unless you run a men’s rights forum, there is a strong possibility that the number of men who say they were falsely accused will be very few, if any.
I am not arguing that false cases are not filed. In every law there exists an inherent potential for abuse, but penal laws are (ideally) passed to deter and punish the commission of the larger social evil, which in this case is sexual harassment of women. It needs to be understood that the burden of proof already operates to the disadvantage of women: it is impossible for women to “prove” that they were groped when alone or prove that a person made sexually offensive comments. Therefore it also needs to be appreciated that a failure to “prove” allegations in such cases is not concrete proof of the case being false. Note that Singh was released on bail within 24 hours of his arrest.
The discourse around Jasleen’s case was one where hordes of people embarked on a witch hunt; twice within a span of 24 hours. 
Judy Johnson, the mother of a preschool student in Manhattan Beach, California, reported to the police that her son had been sodomised by an employee of the preschool in which her son studied. Similar allegations including allegations about the school staff having sex with animals followed from other parents. The trial lasted seven years and cost $15 million, the longest and most expensive criminal case in the history of the United States legal system. The media covered the trial with unprecedented zeal and there was immense public outrage. Johnson was diagnosed with and hospitalized for acute paranoid schizophrenia. The trial resulted in no convictions. This happened in the 1980s.David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote a series of articles, which later won the Pulitzer Prize, discussing the flawed and skewed coverage  presented by his own paper of the trial.
Since it is the season of pronouncing guilt, I hereby declare the discourse guilty.

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