Our crime reporters may please rethink
Md Rizwanul Islam
Anyone conversant with the prevalent politico-socio-economic scenario of Bangladesh would praise the positive role played by newspapers in the enforcement of people's right to justice. In many cases people go to the police station to lodge a complaint but fail to do so due to the fact that the person against whom the complaint would be lodged is an influential one. The report by a journalist regarding this kind of incident has aided innumerable helpless people across Bangladesh. In many occasions authentic, persuasive reports published in newspapers have forced law enforcing agencies to act where they might not have acted otherwise. A good investigative report can aid the law enforcing agencies. But perhaps any independent observer would agree that on the whole crime reporting in our newspapers has been up to expectation so far.
It is undeniable that the journalists have a very important role to play in securing people's right to information and in preparing and publishing their reports they should be free. This freedom has to be ensured not only for their sake but for the sake of the readers as well the people at large. If they transgress their limit and cause undue harm to anybody they are accountable to the Press Council (Under Section 12 of the Press Council Act, 1974 the Press Council is empowered to warn, admonish and censure a newspaper; news agency; editor; journalist if the Council, upon hearing the concerned newspaper; news agency; editor; journalist and holding an inquiry believes that the concerned entity has offended against the standard of journalistic ethic or public taste). In wider sense they are also directly accountable to their readers. If they do not maintain their quality, they would start to lose their readers. Of course losing their readers would mean loss of advertisements and ultimately the very subsistence of the newspaper would be threatened.
But journalists should not on any count expropriate the role of judiciary. Almost everyday crime reports are being published in our newspapers where there are vivid descriptions as to the commission of an offence. In few cases, without mentioning any source of information whatsoever, these reports go to the extent of narrating the conversations of the concerned persons as if the reporter himself was present there or he overheard them while they were talking to each other. Sometimes these reports pass conclusive comments as to the guilt of an accused and thereby may create public opinion. This is more so in a country like ours where rate of literacy is still too low and many people associate importance with printed materials irrespective of quality. This of course is a very alarming tendency.
The judges though are free in the performance of their judicial functions it must not be forgotten that they live within the society. Moreover they are human beings and it's not unlikely that everyone won't be able to go beyond public opinion. Even if judges be absolutely independent in many cases through pointless reporting (if any) an impression may be created among the members of the public that the verdict of a sensational case should be like this or that. If that popular expectation is not reflected in the actual verdict, integrity or quality of the concerned judge might unduly be questioned. Apart from this, reckless reporting (if any) may hamper an innocent person's hard earned reputation which cannot always properly be redressed by any warning, admonition or censure.
Recently there has been a hue and cry, mainly from politicians belonging to the party in power, urging the newspapers to restrain from publishing so called “negative news” that may jeopardise the interest of the nation which, however, I feel is not justified at all. The duty of newspaper is to publish the truth objectively and not to think of enhancing or diminishing any entity's image. Instead of advising newspapers on positive journalism, our politicians should concentrate on performing their own functions properly and then positive news is bound to be there on a regular basis. There is also no necessity to pass any draconian laws to curb the freedom of press which is a sine qua non for any democratic society. But considering the wide impact of their reporting crime reporters should be more careful in their reports.
In their crime reports the reporters should mention the source of information properly. In order to ensure fairness, to the extent possible, the statement of the accused should also be presented in the report. The reporters should not (which many of them do not) pass any conclusive comment as to the guilt or otherwise of an accused. They should always bear in mind the oft quoted fundamental principle of criminal law (especially followed in common law countries) “everyone is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved.” The reporters should play better role in presenting and analysing factual information and be just reluctant to pass any comment as to the guilt of an accused which might be passed only by any binding judgment.
The author is Lecturer, Department of Law, Northern University Bangladesh.