Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Our Responsibility to Respect the Rights of Others

Published:Saturday | January 14, 2017 | 1:00 AM

THE EDITOR, Sir:

The much-publicised case involving allegations of sexual intercourse between a minor and a man of the cloth has created fodder for the media, both formal and social. In reporting on this story, the media has not refrained from giving the name, occupation, and place of work of the accused, along with the details of allegations being made against him. No one listening to the reports can escape the conclusion that the allegations are being presented as facts. The jury that will sit on this case will have little thinking to do, in light of the way in which the media, including social media, has already tried, convicted, and in some instances, sentenced the accused.

It is universally accepted that freedom of speech does not permit an individual to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, in that the consequence can lead to stampede, resulting in serious injury or loss of life. In fact, the Charter of Rights of our Constitution (Section 13 (c) ), in pronouncing that "all persons are under a responsibility to respect and uphold the right of others," has made it clear that the enjoyment of our rights is subject to and limited by how they infringe on the rights of others.

I recall how a 13-year-old child was abused by his classmates' exercise of their freedom of speech and right to access information after they searched his father's name on the Internet, and found a judgement of our Supreme Court in which his mother's infidelity was proved, by DNA, to have produced a child not belonging to her husband, his father.

We are careful to protect victims by concealing their names when reporting cases, before and after trial. No such protection is given to the accused, even where he has been acquitted. Unfortunately, what is good for the goose is not always given to the gander.

 

NO PROTECTION

 

In all of this, the Constitution's so-called guarantee of the presumption of innocence and right to trial by an independent and impartial tribunal is no longer worth the paper it is written on. Our lust to 'put the story out there' has eclipsed the need to protect those accused until a court of competent jurisdiction pronounces on the guilt or innocence of those we put on trial.

The case at hand cannot be tried in public. By law, it must be tried behind closed doors. However, as it now stands, the doors have been thrown wide open by reports on the allegations parading as truth, for all and sundry to try the named accused and come to a verdict of guilt.

A few years ago, a well-placed electronic media house, in its evening news, published a story alleging that a named police officer had, at gunpoint, sodomised a young boy. At his trial, it was proven that the allegations were false, having been orchestrated by fellow police officers out of spite and envy. The evidence was so discredited that he was not called upon by the court to state his defence, and was acquitted of all wrongdoing. There was no report by the said media house of his acquittal. You see, the result was not as juicy, sensational, and 'newsworthy', as was the initial arrest. So, those of us who were not privy to this acquittal and the reasons leading to it ( tried in camera in the gun court ), are still left to accept the damning original report which exposed the accused's name, rank, and address!

Freedom of speech, and the right of the public to be informed, has its limits. It must be enjoyed, but only after boundaries are well defined and adhered to. Before we publish unbridled allegations, recklessly identifying the accused citizen, let us all be reminded of and guided by one of my grandmother's regular admonitions that we should "do onto others as we have them do onto us". Amen.

Bert Samuels

Attorney-at-Law

bert.samuels@gmail.com