Responsible media crucial to public perception of judiciary: CJ

The recently released Judicial Integrity Scan 2015 report recommends several ways to improve understanding between the media and judiciary

Law and Media: The judiciary’s relations with the media has proved increasingly delicate and complex, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk said recently during the launch of a report on the judiciary.

The protection of the judiciary against scurrilous abuse and attacks on its integrity in print and social media is equally a matter of importance and concern for the judiciary, he said.

Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk was speaking at the launch of the Judicial Integrity Scan 2015 report recently.

The importance of media to the fair administration of justice, to the exposure of official corruption and mendacity, to the revelation of judicial abuses of power, and to call to reform ill-conceived or poorly implemented laws cannot be understated, he said.

“Without a strong fourth estate, we would suffer at the whim of powerful and corrupt public officials,” Chief Justice Tshering Wangchuk said. A robust and constructive debate and free expression of views or opinion are therefore integral to a vibrant democracy and must be welcomed, said the chief justice.

“However, what places the legitimacy and integrity of the courts at risk is the reckless responses of litigants amounting to attacks without substance to decisions of the courts wherever they are dissatisfied with the outcome of their cases. And it makes it so much more dangerous when litigants are influential public officials or when they are from the media,” he said.

He added that in most cases, media coverage about the judicial system focuses on outrageous cases lacking in fairness, accuracy, process and standard.

“The media reports only decisions taken at different levels of appeal, without following a case through inception to its logical conclusion – reporting of a case in its entirety,” the Chief Justice said.

Piece-meal coverage of high profile cases, with reporters not attending court hearings and  basing their stories on hearsay has also contributed to negative perceptions of the legal system and of judges, he pointed out.

As a result, he said the public’s perception of what really happens in the courtroom is obscured by a lens that has little semblance of reality and the media’s ultimate responsibility of reporting with fairness and accuracy.

These perceptions threaten to erode the integrity of the legal system, he added. The chief justice said that inaccurate reports by the media will lead to negative perceptions of justice and undermine the independence and confidence in the judicial institutions. Such a scenario sends the wrong message to an already restless public that if the outcome of a court case is not favourable, a litigant is entitled to publicly attack and malign the judicial officer and the judiciary as an institution, he added.

“This culture of disrespect for courts and the judges will invariably have negative consequences,” the chief justice said.

The Chief Justice pointed out that the freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and press are not absolute rights. “It doesn’t give the media or any individual the right to openly and without reason denigrate the judiciary in the eyes of the general public,” he said.

However, he said that the role of a vibrant independent media in identifying and investigating the most pertinent issues for public attention and debate, and promoting public dialogue cannot be overstated, and should not lose it lustre.

With everyone having an interest in laying a firm foundation of democracy, he said, the independence, integrity, and legitimacy of our courts must be protected. “We must prevent the creation of circumstances which weaken them and place their authority in jeopardy.”

He said that respect for the Constitution and for democracy will sustain only if there is respect for rule of law and honour, and the reasoned decisions of the courts which are tasked to interpret the Constitution and the laws.

The recently launched Judicial Integrity Scan report 2015 too acknowledges shortcomings in the relationship between the media and judiciary. It provides numerous recommendations to improve the media’s understanding of the judiciary.

The report recommends that the judiciary conduct a workshop and annual meetings with the media on issues of cooperation.

“The judiciary has to develop guidelines for the whole judiciary on how to work with the media making clear that shutting the media out without a sound justification is a serious constitutional violation,” the report states.

The report also calls for the judiciary to facilitate trainings for journalists on the judicial system and on good practices of judicial reporting, possibly with donor support. “Make it good practice of media to check the legal accuracy of a draft with a sufficiently trained professional,” it states.

The judiciary has to adopt a legal basis for freedom of information and media, access to judicial decisions, and publish more decisions through different channels such as a web site, legal commentaries and case reporters.

“Take media work as a chance to enhance public perception of the judiciary inter alia by setting up professional media spokesperson, pro-active information on court cases, facilitate regular reporting on cases interesting to ordinary citizens with an educational aim by providing case summaries to the press,” the report states.

The report states that in all countries there are disagreements over the quality of media reports on court cases. “It is a natural consequence of media not only presenting facts but also channeling opinions and viewpoints on which not everybody might agree,” the report states.

“However, in the case of Bhutan, certain factors seem to hamper the accuracy of the reporting on court cases: on the side of journalists, there is a low degree of specialisation on court reporting including a sufficient understanding of the legal system, this is also a consequence of a rather small pool of journalists in a small country like Bhutan.”

As most proceedings are in dzongkha journalists often have trouble following the reading of long statements, let alone with legal jargon, the report stated.

Tshering Palden

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