There is a saying that children should not play with sharp-edged tools. Why? Because they are likely to harm themselves due to the danger of the implement and the inexperience of the user.
This week, we witnessed this collision and accompanying self-harm when one of the island’s social media influencers was hauled before a High Court Judge, for almost causing a mistrial in a serious criminal matter.
Ironically, most onlookers regarded the case as an easy win for the prosecution, based on the weight of the reported evidence.
What started, for many, as a simple copy and pasting of a published article on the criminal proceedings accompanied by lengthy commentaries, evolved into a much larger issue with very serious implications.
The events demonstrated the absence of knowledge about the operations of the Press and the accompanying legal and ethical responsibilities; a person’s right to a fair trial that is conducted in the open and not in secret; and what is regarded as reporting and what is commentary.
Among the first instructions to young court reporters are lessons on matters of privilege, the requirement for accuracy in reporting proceedings, the rule of sub judice and the limits of their privilege as reporters.
There are other instructions too, such as not identifying victims of sexual assaults. In fact, there have been several cases over the years where some rape convicts were never identified in the Press simply because to do so, would identify the victim, especially in cases of incest.
The sub judice rule is quite simple. It restricts commentary on judicial proceedings that may be prejudicial to the outcome. Essentially, the law protects a person’s right to a fair trial by restricting the publication of information that may improperly influence a jury or witnesses.
It was apparent, that many on social media have conflated the sub judice rule, which is contempt of court, with the publishing of court proceedings.
And in the rush to share with the public what they knew about an accused man, resulted in some members of the jury, who stood to decide his fate, becoming aware of that information also. Thus, those jurors could have been influenced in their decisions, not based on the evidence before them in the trial, but by what they read on social media.
That would be a gross miscarriage of justice and we commend the judge for taking decisive action.
It is unfair to an accused to publish his or her antecedents before the end of the trial. And it is doubly unfair to the victim of a crime if a guilty person goes free because of the reckless actions of the Press.
With the advent of smart phones and social media, there is a rush to put everything on blast, to be the first to comment, the first to post, the first to share; to have the most likes, the most followers, to be the most critical and the most derisive.
Those who operate in the traditional media are often criticized as too slow. Often, we have the same information or rumour that others share, but we have a much higher obligation and responsibility to be measured in the release of information. We seek to confirm first before publishing, to adhere to ethical and professional standards, and to follow the law.
Two jurors in this unfortunate incident were released early from their jury duty, not because their characters were impinged but because the judge and the public must be assured that jurors are weighing evidence before them and not social media posts and blogs.
We do not want a situation where guilty persons go free or innocent persons convicted because jurors or witnesses have been prejudiced by what they hear, read, or watch outside the courtroom.
What has also been highlighted by this case is the difficulty in preserving the jury pool and witnesses from prejudicial information in an age of social media where the reach is so pervasive and instantaneous.