State was the only opponent, which defence counsels used to argue their cases against. Now they have to argue it against the media as well. The first ‘official’ duty that staff perform early in the morning in courts is to place newspapers in judges’ retiring rooms. As a result, judges are already opinionated about the crimes in their respective districts before they even sit in courts, courtesy of crime reports in these newspapers. The argument of defence counsel has very little to influence in judges’ mind because the media has already argued the case well in prosecution’s favour even before the court time starts.
Among things that senior lawyers tell associate lawyers everyday in bar rooms is that “a judge speaks through his judgments” and “a good judge does not read newspaper”. Contrary to these modern legal proverbs, now judges have started speaking through the media and have voraciously started reading newspapers.
This scribe once went to congratulate a lawyer who was elevated to the Lahore High Court. After exchanging pleasantries, the lawyer-turned judge told this scribe that how his staff showed him the clipping of a BBC newsreport which contained the judge’s name. The judge was visibly very happy over his dutiful staff, the true report and the credibility of the B.B.C. A great deal of time was spent discussing the report, which speaks volume about the importance judges pay to their portrayal in the media.
Now judgments have stopped speaking, instead breaking news and scrolling text at the bottom of television screen speak louder than judgments. And these hastily-run media reports often confuse viewers because people in the media know a little about procedural laws in Pakistan.
A growing tendency is also witnessed among complainant parties to approach local journalists to get favourable reports published a day before the decision of the bail or the case. Now the judge has to keep in mind the merits of the case and the monstrous public opinion which has been formed after the publication of that report.
The adjective-laden media reports make the society, including judges, biased against accused. When the whole country has seen a media report about the “killers”, no judge can judiciously apply his mind in the case. The foremost thought on his mind would be what would people think if he acquits the “killer”. Many innocent people are condemned just because the judges can’t tolerate the public pressure.
Just remember how much fuss the media created when a minor girl servant died in a prominent lawyer’s home in Lahore’s defence housing authority. Live reports were aired and after a few days of sensation, the media forgot about the issue as it had never happened. The media declared the lawyer, who was a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, guilty even before the police investigation completed.
In most Western countries, the media can’t even name the suspects or accused before the trial is over. In the UK, there is a growing trend of getting media injunctions wherein the media is barred from commenting, reporting or discussing a subjudice case. Superior courts sometimes also issue super injunctions wherein the media is barred from discussing, commenting or reporting the subjudice case and even the injunction itself.
In Pakistan, things are different. The media has set up a permanent corner outside the apex court where lawyers address it before and after the court session. My friends in the media would testify that only a handful of lawyers refuse to comment on the media because the matter is subjudice whereas a majority of them is happy and willing to discuss the whole case before television cameras. Why people argue their cases before the media when they have approached courts in this regard?
This trend is likely to go unchecked, unless some sane voices among bar, bench and the media realise the damage it is doing to our judicial system. The bar needs to arrange workshops for reporters where they should be informed about legal ethics, right of accused and how media’s commentary on a case may jeopardise its decision.
The superior courts in our country need to issue some guidelines to the media in this regard. They also need to realise and tell subordinate judicial officers about the insignificance media reports, which can portray black as white one day and vice versa the other day.
With due respect to our friends in the media, we cannot deny that the bar and the bench owe a lot to the media because of its unquestioning support for the judicial restoration movement. However, journalists have to realise that suspense and law can’t co-exist. The media can cash in on its ability to create suspense somewhere other than courts. The media is the real power in the world, but reporters should spare courts from their sensational skills because “the freedom of the press means two things: freedom from the press and freedom for the press”.
The writer is a lawyer based in Jhelum. He has worked in Daily Times and Express 24/7.