The Hon'ble Delhi High Court has restricted all media entities from displaying or revealing contents of the chargesheet in regards to the Shraddha Walkar murder case. On the Delhi Police's request to prevent media outlets from airing the details of the chargesheet it has compiled to date, Justice Rajnish Bhatnagar issued a notice. The court further ordered the Union of India to provide "the necessary directives to media organizations prohibiting them from publishing, printing, and circulating "confidential information" found in the chargesheet and other materials gathered throughout the course of the case, as well as to guarantee that the directives be followed."1 Complying with the same, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting released a circular dated July 18, 2023, to all private satellite TV channels, publisher of news and current affairs content on digital media, and newspapers, to comply with the High Court order.
The aforementioned order of the Delhi High Court in the case of State of NCT Delhi v. Union of India & Ors. has reignited the discussion regarding the legality of media coverage with respect of charge sheets. In this article, the author will address the aforesaid issue by taking assistance of the statutory provisions and judicial precedents.
Charge Sheets: The Beginning of Prosecution Processes in the Courts
A chargesheet is the final report created by a police officer or investigating agency following the conclusion of their investigation into a case, as described by Section 173 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 ("CrPC"). In other words, as a result of a thorough investigation, the police or another investigative agency will prepare a written statement known as the chargesheet containing specific allegations against an offender. The purpose of a charge sheet is to prove the accusation of a crime against the accused and to start the prosecution process in the courtin a criminal case.
In the K Veeraswami v. Union of India & Others,2 the Hon'ble Supreme Court decided that under Section 173(2) of the CrPC, "the chargesheet should be regarded as the police officer's final report. It is also pertinent to note that Section 167(2) of the CrPC mandates that a chargesheet must be lodged against the accused within the allotted timeframe of 60 to 90 days; otherwise, the arrest is unlawful, and the defendant is entitled to bail."
A chargesheet includes information about names, offenses, whether the accused is detained, released, or in jail, as well as any actions that have been made against him. The official in charge of the police station prepares the chargesheet and sends it to the magistrate, who has the authority to take note of the offenses listed in it so that the charges can be formulated. Only after gathering adequate evidence against the accused in relation to the offenses listed in the FIR do the police or investigative agency submit a chargesheet; otherwise, they may file a "cancellation report" or "untraced report" owing to a dearth of evidence.
Chargesheets: Are They Public Documents?
As per Section 173(4) of the CrPC, "a duty is cast upon the Investigating Agency to furnish or cause to be furnished to the Accused, free of cost, a copy of the report forwarded under sub-section (1) of Section 173."As per Section 173(5) of the CrPC, "when any report is filed in respect of the case to which Section 170 of the CrPC applies, the police officer shall forward to the Magistrate along with the report all documents or relevant extracts thereof on which the prosecution proposes to rely other than those already sent to the Magistrate during investigation."
It is clear from a joint reading of Sections 173 and 207 of the CrPC that the Investigating Agency must only give copies of the report and any other pertinent documents that the prosecution would rely on to the accused only and no one else. Therefore, it would be against the spirit of the CrPC and could as well contravene the rights of the accused as well as the victim and/or the investigating agency if all the chargesheets and related documents produced in tandem with the chargesheets were placed in the public domain or on the websites of the state governments. Displaying the FIR on the website, as mandated by the Supreme Court in Youth Bar Association of India v. Union of India,3 cannot be equated with displaying the chargesheets in tandem with the relevant documents on the public domain and on the websites of the State Governments.
Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 defines what are public documents for the purpose of evidence. It defines public documents as "those which form the acts or records of sovereign authority, official bodies, tribunals, and of public offices either legislative, judicial or executive in any part of India, Commonwealth or a foreign country." It also includes public records "kept in any State of private documents".Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 provides the means and method of proving public documents by certified copies. It states that every public officer who has the custody of a public document, which any person has a right to inspect, shall give that person a copy of it on demand and payment of the legal fees, along with a certificate that it is a true copy. Such copies are called certified copies and can be used as evidence of the public document. It may be argued that chargesheet is a public document under Section 74 read with Section 76 of the Evidence Act.
However, the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Saurav Das vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors.4held that this interpretation is absolutely misconceived and misplaced. It was held that because Section 74 of the Evidence Act is exhaustive in nature and makes no mention of the chargesheet as a public document, it cannot be said that the copy of the chargesheet and the necessary documents meet the definition of "Public Documents" as stated in that section. In addition, all other documents besides those listed in Section 74 of the Evidence Act are private document according to Section 75 of the Evidence Act. It was ruled that chargesheets should be covered under Section 75 of the Evidence Act rather than being considered public documents under Section 74 of the Evidence Act.
Additionally, the Court in Saurav Das case also negated the role of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 ("RTI Act") in making the chargesheet accessible to public domain. The public authority is required to act in line with the provisions of Clause (b) of Sub-section 1 of Section 4 of the RTI Act to release as much information suo moto to the public at regular intervals using a variety of communications channels, as per Section 4(2) of the RTI Act. However, the Supreme Court ruled unequivocally that the chargesheet's copies and any relevant supporting documents are not covered by Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. Therefore, in all likelihood, chargesheet is not a public document which shall be accessible to the public domain, including the media.
Displaying of Chargesheet Contents by Media Risks Fairness and Justice
The prohibition against media display of parts of a chargesheet in a criminal case stems from the desire to preserve justice and fairness throughout the legal process. Several compelling arguments support this perspective. Firstly, the presumption of innocence is one of the cornerstones of a fair trial. Chargesheets can lead to premature judgments in the court of public opinion if they are published, which often include unverified allegations and evidence. Not only does this violate the accused's right to a fair trial, but the entire judicial system can also be tainted.
The accused also has the same right to privacy as every other citizen. Making a chargesheet public could jeopardize an accused person's privacy and reveal their personal details and accusations before they have the chance to defend themselves in court. An essential component of upholding someone's human rights is protecting their privacy. Media sources run the danger of obstructing the administration of justice by making material from a chargesheet public and possibly swaying the judge and witnesses engaged in the case.
Additionally, the quest of increased ratings or sensationalism is sometimes the driving force behind media outlets, which can result in skewed reporting. Even if the accused is ultimately proved innocent, highlighting certain details of a chargesheet without providing the entire context may alter public perception and cause irreparable reputational harm. The information contained in chargesheets, which are a component of an ongoing inquiry, may not necessarily be true or full. Without the proper context, displaying these documents might spread false or misleading information, confusing the public and further damaging the accused's reputation.
Furthermore, making information from a chargesheet public may influence witnesses' readiness to come forth and provide testimony in court. The pursuit of truth and justice may be hampered if witnesses fear retaliation or intimidation if their identities or remarks are prematurely made public, thereby violating the basic tenets of criminal justice.
The Delhi High Court in its order in Shraddha Walkar murder case observed that telecasting contents of chargesheets and other essential details of the case not only has no purpose to serve, but also has the risk of jeopardising the fairness of in the case.The media must practice ethical journalism while covering criminal cases in light of these reasons. This calls for upholding ethical standards, authenticating facts, and honouring the presumptions of innocence, justice, and privacy. By doing this, the media can contribute positively to the legal system, ensuring that justice is done while preserving the rights and dignity of those who have been charged.
1. Nupur Thapliyal, Shraddha Walkar Murder Case: Delhi High Court Restrains News Channels From Broadcasting Contents Of Chargesheet, LiveLaw (Apr. 19, 2023), https://www-livelaw-in.rgnul.remotexs.in/high-court/delhi-high-court/delhi-high-court-news-channels-chargesheet-shraddha-walkar-murder-case-226704.
2. K Veeraswami v. Union of India & Others, 1991 3 SCC 655.
3. Youth Bar Association of India v. Union of India, (2016) 9 SCC 473.
4. Saurav Das vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors., AIR2023SC615.
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