By Anil Dhir
New Delhi: Saudamini Meher, wife of Punjilal Meher, the accused in the sensational Patnagarh parcel bomb wedding gift blast, has said that her husband is a victim of “trial by media” and sent legal notice to four media houses.
In a legal notice sent to four media houses through her lawyer Tirtha Kumar Sahu in Delhi, she has asked the publishers, editors and reporters of these newspapers to tender a public apology for the “grievous mental agony” and “loss of reputation” caused to her entire family on account of the media trial.
The legal notices to The New Indian Express, Sun Times Odisha, odishabytes.com and The Orissa Post, sent earlier this month, also seeks damages of Rs 10 lakh each. It underlines that Punjilal is only an “accused” but the media has largely referred to him as a culprit – “in total violation of all journalistic, legal and humanist norms.”
The result of the “toxic and incessant propaganda done by the media”, she says in the legal notice, is the high court’s denial of bail to Punjilal, who has been in jail for the last 14 months.
Punjilal, a lecturer at Jyoti Vikash Junior College, Patnagarh, in Balangir district, was arrested by the Crime Branch of Odisha police on April 25, 2018, two months after he allegedly sent a parcel bomb disguised as a wedding gift to Patnagarh’s Soumyasekhar Sahu. The police allege that it was a “revenge killing”by Punjilal, who had been replaced by Soumya’s mother, Sanjukta, as principal of the college.
Soumya, a techie with a Bangalore-based company, married Reema Rani on February 18, 2018; he received a gift five days later, which turned out to be a bomb. As the parcel was opened, the bomb exploded. Soumya and his grandmother, Jemamani, succumbed to their injuries the same day and Reema was hospitalised with “serious burns.” She was discharged from the hospital after two months, in April 2018.
The case invited huge media and public attention before and after the accused, Punjilal, was arrested. He has been in jail for over 14 months, is reportedly suffering from several health problems, and his bail application has been rejected both by the ADJ, Patnagarh and by the High Court of Orissa. In its bail-rejection order, on March 25, 2019, the high court described Punjilal in a negative light although he is an under-trial.
“Jealousy towards the colleague for losing Principalship of the college seems to have spread tentacles of cancerous cells in the revengeful mind of the loser for painstaking planning and executing the infamous case of Patnagarh parcel bomb tragedy. When jealousy overtakes the human mind completely, it creates a feeling of neurotic insecurity. Being engrossed by this incurable disease of covetousness and possessed with a mad devil and dull spirit, a jealous person gets stuck within his dark starless nights and tries to eclipse the sun of his rival in an illegal way stooping to the lowest level. ….” These “scathing and hurtful” remarks in the high court order, according to Saudamini’s legal notice, are the result of the “toxic” media publicity against Punjilal.
The 19-page legal notice, sent by her, quotes several studies and judgements/orders of various high courts and the supreme court of India besides the Indian Constitution and international laws to substantiate how trial/verdict by media affects the minds of the judges and the right of the accused to a fair trial, which is a vital part of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The media, according to the notice, “misrepresented an accused as a criminal and pronounced him guilty” which “subverts justice, prejudices public and judicial opinion against Punjilal Meher, robs him of a chance of fair trial, destroys his reputation and exposes his entire family to extreme mental stress, social disgrace and ostracisation, public hostility, humiliation, shame and degradation.”
The legal notice also refers to The Law Commission of India, which, in its 200th Report on “Media Trial and Freedom of Expression”, has recommended action against irresponsible reporting by the media in high publicity cases. The Commission observed that “During high publicity court cases, the media are often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria akin to a lynch mob which not only makes a fair trial nearly impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial, in public perception, the accused is already held guilty and would not be able to live the rest of their life without intense public scrutiny…”
The Law Commission of India, in its report, gives specific examples of media/film publicity that prejudice a trial: suggestions that the accused has confessed to committing the crime in question; suggestions that the accused is guilty or involved in the crime for which he or she is charged or that the jury should convict or acquit the accused and comments which engender sympathy or antipathy for the accused and/or which disparage the prosecution or which make favourable or unfavourable references to the character or credibility of the accused or a witness.
Interestingly, the legal notice quotes passages from Justice (Retd.) Dipak Misra’s judgement in the matter of Om Prakash Chautala Vs Kanwar Bhan and Others (reported in 2014 (5) SCC 417), in which he had said, “When reputation is hurt a man is half dead. It is an honour which deserves to be equally preserved by the downtrodden and the underprivileged.”
Justice Dipak Misra further noted that reputation “is dear to life and on some occasions dearer than life. And that is why it has become an inseparable facet of Article 21 of the Constitution. No one would like to have his reputation dented.”
The legal notice relies heavily upon such words of justices and other legal authorities to support the argument that the media, by “usurping the role of the judiciary” and by “pronouncing Punjilal guilty” has destroyed the family’s reputation and endangered their fundamental right to life and liberty.