Crimes, Courts And The Media

by Michael Ewetuga

The legal profession started as a profession that brings relief to the people, it started as a profession that edifies the rule of law, it is a profession that is supposed to lend a voice to the voiceless, defend the defenseless and contrary to what we have today, where money rather than justice is what matters, the profession started on a charitable note. Perhaps the guilt is why various bar associations in America make it compulsory for lawyers to provide pro bono hours, an idea that I do not agree with. You don’t force people to do good, they must desire it, they must really feel like it and put their all into it.

The legal profession being a profession that defends the helpless therefore enjoins lawyers to take cases even if they feel like their clients are wrong. This is in consonance with the principle that an accused person is innocent until his guilt is proven. Proving his guilt is the job of the government, via its prosecutors, deciding his fate vis-à-vis the alleged crime is that of the judge, not that of anyone else especially not that of the lawyers.

The state is a very big institution and have readily available at its disposal instruments that it could use for the good of the society or for the oppression of the downtrodden. It is the job of the society at large to see to it that people who wield state powers are held accountable to the society that gave them the powers which it (society) gave for one purpose and one purpose only, for the good of all.

The saying that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be incarcerated is just to make sure that no one is wrongly judged and jailed. Society owes it to itself that the proper procedures of determining a man’s guilt are followed.

In some countries, the media is referred to as the 4th estate of the realm in the sense that there’s the executive, the legislature and of course the judiciary, those are the arms of government, the 4th estate, which is not part of the governmental structure in anyway and so is viewed to be more credible is the media.

The media developed in some countries as weapons of opposition to unfair governments, especially in most African countries. Those of us from Africa take the media so very serious and where any member of the media misinforms, for whatever reason, we see that as a direct stab in the back.

Due to its development, especially in those countries where there were need to counter governments propaganda, the media has a lot of influence on the people and since most of the things reported are things that we cannot find out ourselves nor verify, we trust and rely on the media to keep us honestly informed. In the guise of reporting the media started shaping opinions, it is only a fool that will not recognize how influential the media is in the opinion court.

This article is written to examine the role of the media in dispensing justice.

Legal issues, like every other issue, are reported in the media. The media sometimes get overzealous in reporting legal issues, constituting itself into the judge and jury. Whenever there’s a high profile case, in other words cases involving celebrities, newspapers and TV stations try to outdo themselves in dissecting the cases by inviting the so called experts to analyze and give their opinions about the cases.

This kind of attitude, to my mind deprives the accused of the benefit of innocence before his guilt is proven, especially in a system that makes use of jury such as we have here in the USA. How do you want a jury to vote when people who are close to him/her have been informed by the media that the accused is guilty?

Apart from the fact that some of these reports could be prejudicial to the accused persons and could lead to miscarriage of justice, it could also mess up the case for the prosecution in the sense that juries might acquit defendants even in the face of overwhelming evidence against him just to assert their independence.

There are more to proving someone’s innocence or guilt than whatever information the media has sometimes and the fact that all the facts might not be available should be enough to put the media on notice that the guilt or innocence of a man should be determined by those whose duty it is to make that decision.

It is the duty of the prosecutor to not only bring the charges but prove the elements of whatever crime an accused person is being accused of, “beyond reasonable doubt”. It is the duty of the Jury, in the case of America, the judge in the case of Nigeria, to find that the facts proved are sufficient to sustain the charges as defined. It is the duty of the court to sentence after conviction. The duty of the press is to report the incident.

Preempting the court is a practice that is seriously frowned at in some jurisdictions. Cases may be reported but the guilt or innocence of the accused depends on whether or not the case against him was made out satisfactorily. When a charge is preferred against an accused person such issue is supposed to be sub judiced, the media may report the case they may not constitute themselves into a separate judiciary trying the case. Where someone does that, such an individual or organization is in contempt of the presiding court.

When the media goes after the accused person, everyone in the defense team becomes the devil’s advocate. They are taunted by the public and forsaken by their friends and their families are made to carry a bag of guilt for their “misbehavior” simply because they did what is required of them as professionals. A soldier for example does not question the rationale behind a war he fights in; a lawyer defending a party in a case is more or less in the same situation.

I believe the various bar associations as well as ABA need to embark on an educational campaign so that people will appreciate the role of lawyers in dispensation of justice, if someone like Cully Stimson, a lawyer and deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, does not understand it then the ordinary man on the street deserves some form of education in that regard.

In conclusion, I believe the way the media report high profile cases could make citizens to lose interest in the judiciary in the sense that if an accused has been tried and found guilty by the media, acquittal in the court may give the impression that the court is not to be trusted and the stain resulting from such adverse opinion might not be easy to wash off by the judiciary.

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