The clarity from the judiciary on naming and shaming suspects is relevant and helpful. By pointing out that it was wrong to name and shame suspects, it has also made clear when it is right to name and shame.
Earlier, the issue came up when banks published names and photographs of loan defaulters in the media. It was stopped when concerns were raised on the grounds of human rights in the Parliament. Recently, the issue came up again when police decided to name and shame suspects as a measure to deter crime and asked the media to do the same.
While some appreciated the police’s measure, many also questioned if police could do so when the due process of law was not completed. Police continue to post photographs of suspects on its social media page and the debate at least online is not as intense as it was then.
That, however, should not stop the discourse because the strategy of naming and shaming has both legal and ethical dimensions. We need to understand if it is more a matter of when as to who. There is also a need to grasp the purpose of naming and shaming. Police and the Anti-Corruption Commission say it is to deter crime and corruption. Those in the mainstream media say that if they name and shame, it is done so in public interest.
There are also arguments that the purpose of naming and shaming is to punish an individual, to inform the public about his or her conduct and to critique an individual of his or her action. Often, when the media resort to naming and shaming, all these reasons and more could intersect. We need to ask ourselves if our stories are done in public interest or because it interests the public or even both. Going by the recent observations made by the cabinet ministers and members of the judiciary, media reports are biased. That it cites competent authorities such as the police or the ACC is not enough because it deprives the alleged individual the presumption of innocence, among others.
Such observations are good and the media must know what wrong ethically and legally it could be doing in their effort to inform the people. But reporting the truth or attempts to question must not be perceived as the media’s intent to create a negative environment, as it was shared during the meet the press recently. We question not out of frustrations but because we have the responsibility to find answers. We write and rewrite about the same issues because they need attention.
The social media is another area where the naming and shaming practice is as relevant. Increased access to social media sites has enhanced the visibility of not only public figures but also ordinary citizens. Here the process of shaming is instant and, outrage, often hinged on morality than on legality, magnified. Some dismiss online discussions but with technology blurring boundaries, the same law and ethics apply to the virtual community. We could all try to report responsibly, both online and off.