Trial by media is a phrase describing the implication of media on a case before a court of law whereby the media does investigations on their own and lopsidedly makes conclusions on who’s guilty even before the jury reaches its verdict. This usually results to friction between the media and the judiciary or even the government and in most cases it all ends up with the government imposing stringent measures which are aimed at curtailing the freedom of press.
The press ends up with no freedom of speech or expression, or if they are lucky, they may end up with a need to balance their freedom of speech and freedom of expression with undue interference from the government framework.
Media Interference in Courts
In most democracies, the public is never in favor of the government and the leadership which the public always tries to fault. This makes the public an easy prey to be manipulated by unscrupulous people and can easily be misled by the public press who can relate and communicate well even with most of citizens even in the grassroots. This poses problems as can be seen in the interference of media in court cases.
This happens when the media, armed with facts – having conducted separate investigations from the police and prosecution- especially in a high profile case, attempt to foster public opinion of whether a person is guilt or innocent thus highly influencing the court’s verdict. The media in this instance tries to sell their agenda through excessive publicity and sensitization to the public.
This media coverage may interfere with the rights of the accused or the defendant to get a free and fair hearing before a court of law. This is evident as the outcomes of these cases are inclined towards the stand taken by the media. If the media chooses to exonerate the accused, it is highly unlikely that the person will be found guilty or if found guilty, the sentence is minimal.
Most governments are opposed to trials by the media and thus they impose stringent laws that govern media coverage on cases before the courts.
Example of Media Interference in Judicial System.
In 1994, O. J Simpson, a football star, was given the guilty verdict by the media. He was answering charges of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The front-page of The Los Angeles Times was covered by this story for over three hundred days. Moreover the major television networks, dedicated more of their time on air reporting on this case.
At the same time there were other situations that were ongoing such as the Bosnian War and Oklahoma City bombings which needed the world’s attention but the media choose to ignore them. In view of this, the government called for examination of jury bias and consequently the dismissal of the original jury. In the end, the court acquitted Simpson. This was seen as intend to console him for being declared guilty in the trial by media.
It has become evident that trials by media can misdirect the courts to disregard material evidence in cases thus leading to denial of a free and fair hearing of either the accused or the defendant. This does not entirely mean that the media should be completely barred from covering cases but they should follow the law to avoid tripping on the rights of those before the court. In some countries like the United Kingdom they have strict laws restricting the media on covering a case in progress after someone has been formally arrested.
Although prosecution of media house is rare, the Daily Mirror, The Sun and others have faced charges of contempt of court regulations. However the role of the media in courts can not be ignored as the keep matters before the court in check and inform the people.