Indian high court approached over frenzied media coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput's deathArchive
A top court in India is set to take up three petitions requesting that the media be restrained from reporting on the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the ongoing investigation into it, Scroll.in reported on Tuesday.
The Bombay High Court today issued a notice to the federal government over the latest of the three pleas, filed by a non-governmental organisation called In Pursuit of Justice. The first plea was filed by a filmmaker and two others, and the second by eight former police officials from the state of Maharashtra.
Rajput's abrupt death in June has spurred a debate about the stigma of mental health, the rarefied insider world of Bollywood, and, more recently, condemnation of the media for the non-stop coverage of the duelling accusations between Rajput’s family and his girlfriend.
Mumbai police initially reported Rajput’s death as accidental and local media called it a suicide. But the federal police agency is now investigating if there was any foul play and is questioning Rajput’s girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, and others.
The plea filed by the NGO seeks that the court widen the scope of the Contempt of the Courts Act to include any obstructions that could hamper the dispensation of justice from the time a first investigation report is filed in a case.
“The recent spate of media reporting in the case of the untimely demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the extent of media frenzy concerning all issues and non-issues involving the incident is quite disturbing,” the petition said. “It has given rise to an urgent need of finding an acceptable constitutional balance between free press and administration of justice.”
The plea noted that the media has published Rajput’s personal chats and statements of the accused and hospital staff. Expressing the fear that the reporting may prejudice the investigation into the actor's death, it said the press has already “tried and convicted” the accused persons, calling them names such as “murderer, gold digger and abettor”.
The court has clubbed the three petitions and will hold a joint hearing into them on October 8.
Earlier this month, the Bombay High Court had directed media houses to exercise restraint in reporting on the case investigation, according to Scroll.in.
Earlier this month, Chakraborty was arrested by India’s narcotics department, which is investigating a drugs case linked to the probe of Rajput’s death. She denies any wrongdoing and her lawyer, Satish Maneshinde, called the arrest “a travesty of justice”.
Along the way, the story has become a media obsession in India, fed by a wave of TV coverage still swelling three months after Rajput, 34, was found dead in his Mumbai apartment.
In recent weeks, India’s TV channels have given more airtime to the Rajput case than India’s surging Covid-19 caseload, a plane crash and top political stories, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council.
India’s boisterous TV networks, which include more than 350 news channels in English and several local languages, have flashed photos of Rajput’s body, analysed his medical prescriptions, even used voodoo dolls and graphics of a skull to hype allegations that “black magic” was performed on the actor.
The federal police, the high court in Mumbai, and the government watchdog Press Council of India have all criticised coverage of the investigation.
“I spent 21 years in television and I’ve never seen a race to the bottom this bad,” said Nidhi Razdan, who recently left Indian news network NDTV to teach journalism.
“It is a media trial. What else is it?” she said. “I haven’t seen this kind of viciousness in coverage before.”
Before his June 14 death, Rajput, most famous for portraying India’s cricket captain in a biopic, and his girlfriend were more likely to be depicted as a down-to-earth — if Bollywood-beautiful — couple, cuddling tousled-haired at home or sitting playfully in jeans on a rundown park bench.
Chakraborty, 28, was regularly hounded by reporters when she appeared in public, with news commentators opining on her innocence or guilt.
Rajput’s family claims she poisoned him, used black magic and is responsible for his death.
“There has been a conspiracy to break me and my family and my spirit,” Chakraborty said in an interview with television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai in late August. “It is the systematic breakdown of an innocent family, an innocent girl who loved an innocent boy.”
Earlier this month, she was jostled by a pack of journalists as she tried to enter a narcotics department office in Mumbai, where police struggled to disperse the crowd.
“Sickening,” journalist Swati Chaturvedi wrote on Twitter. Alaka Sahani, a senior Indian Express journalist, said, “The visuals of Rhea being hounded makes my stomach churn and puke.”