BWIRE: Why media must be above reproach

BWIRE: Why media must be above reproach
File image of journalists at a press conference. PHOTO| COURTESY

By Victor Bwire 

Current media coverage of the criminal justice system in Kenya and ensuing criticism of the crusading journalism especially on matters criminal have opened debate on a number of professional issues.

Are journalists handling information from sources and writing stories in a manner that is protecting their sources, promoting the open justice concept, influencing investigations and judicial processes while at the same time serving public interest?

In journalism, news is written and published as given by sources, subjected to professional standards verified and checked against existing laws and administrative codes. Similarly, the sharing of information including personal statements by sources to journalists directly has also presented media with ease access to information.

Journalism without sources becomes fiction writing and sources are sacred, who must be protected to the tilt while at the same ensuring stories carry as much information as possible from the sources with colour and details.

Is it fatigue, frustration, irresponsibility or need for action that seemingly, people in the criminal justice system seem to be leaking investigation and prosecution files to the media or it deliberate and following media trainings on improved reporting on the sector that journalists have found a new way for reporting?

Is it a plus for the investigative and prosecutorial teams for promoting the openness in the criminal justice system, or will pundits fault them for the increased media coverage?

There was a time when several people entangled in deals or involved in suspect deals filled our media scene with petitions and counter petitions, detailing and or accusing each other of their purported role in the criminal enterprise.

Unfortunately, few of such cases have been completed to enable us know the truth in those petitions.  Similarly, we have seen use of investigation files and witnesses statements in forming part of in depth journalistic work most recently, including even OB reports being shared on media platforms, and many times you wonder about source protection.

While the practice of supporting openness in the coverage of crime related stories in desirable, in line with the constitutional provisions on access to information, fair trail, open justice, freedom of expression and media independence, suffice to note that the publication and airing of details from an on-going investigation, extensively quoting witnesses statements or one sided information provided by the investigating agencies may in some cases obstruct further investigation and prosecution.

Remember the investigators many times make mistakes.  As has severally been observed in previous criminal investigations, serious differences and interpretations occur the accused person and the police or the prosecutor.

 Journalists are protected under various laws and international treaties and have the right to protect their sources including the Geneva Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, with the journalistic rider requiring that  the information given verified, for the story to be published, the news must be of public interest and must be checked extra carefully to make sure that all facts are correct while ensuring that journalists do not use such information to spread rumours and gossip.

Source protection is a must. Media is a critical player in the criminal justice system in Kenya as a watchdog and in a country where investigations and cases seem never to conclude, this approach might put some pressure on the actors to perform.

A publication by Freedom of Expression Hub based in Kampala entitled  “Open Justice; A Closed or Open Reality for Uganda’s Media? A Comparative Study of Best Practices in Covering Courts” notes that media plays a vital role in providing oversight on governance and public interest matters, including disseminating information and educating the public, including on judicial and quasi-judicial processes.

Common law precedents have however stressed that there must be a reasonably justifiable objective for an exception to occur, because motions for publication bans made in the context of criminal proceedings are criminal in nature.

Courts have also stated that technological advancements mean that cameras are no-longer obtrusive, or disruptive, and a large sector of the public acquire information via electronic media.

As regards witnesses, progressive courts have ruled that a witness who objects to coverage of their testimony should be required to assert such objection before the trial judge by specifying the grounds for their objection and the effect the coverage will have on their testimony.

A draft handbook for reporting the criminal justice system in Kenya jointly developed by the  Media Council of Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights for Kenyan journalists while encouraging media to extensively cover and interact with the sector cautions against reckless use of information  that will frustrate  the pursuit for justice. Journalists must stand for truth and justice.

The author is the Programmes Manager at the Media Council of Kenya

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