How Trial by Media Negates Media Ethics

“They destroyed our lives. God rescued us.” These were the words of one of the 26 defendants in a celebrated sodomy case in Cairo, Egypt, Monday January 12. The speaker, along with 25 others were on December 7 pulled from a Cairo bathhouse in a police sting operation video-taped by a famous Cairo television presenter. The incident was later broadcast on national television. It turned out the sanctimonious reporter rated on the bathhouse claiming she had a “den of mass perversion spreading AIDS in Egypt.” The courts ruled that the men were not gay. According to BBC News monitored here in Ottawa, under medical examination, only one of the accused was discovered to have had recent sodomised penetration. The court ruled this may have happened after the raid.

The verdict was highly welcome by relatives, friends and observers within and outside of Egypt, rather than outrage a nation steeped in strong Islamic values that frowns against same-sex relationships. Egypt has no clear-cut sodomy laws. Apparently, the acquitted were family men who went to the bathhouse the same way women would have shown up at a sauna or a massage parlour. That a journalist was the source of their embarrassment is now causing a raging debate over the phenomenon known as ‘Trial by Media’.

News coverage has witnessed an unprecedented boom in the last decade. While it takes weeks for events to get reported by mainstream media, handheld devices and social media meant that news travel faster; news go viral in seconds. Reputation is everything. If you pardon the cliché, reputation is like virginity, one prick and it’s all gone. For the acquitted Egyptians, their ordeal has just begun. The broadcast of their half-naked butts is not the worst of their nightmares, it is how to fix their hard-earned image in a society where honour is the greatest of all values. It is how to protect their immediate and nuclear families from the opprobrium that follows such a publicised albeit wrongful charges. In developed climes, they would be contacting the best lawyers for compensation both from the police and the media that broadcast their case. It is unlikely that this happens in Egypt, it hardly happens in any part of Africa.

This has been the hiding place of many media organisations destroying people’s reputation. But in a globalized world, no umbrella is large enough to shield from class action suits. A British court recently ordered a multinational oil company responsible for oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta to pay huge compensations. Could such courts make pronouncements in the breaches of people’s reputation? That is the million dollar question. But it may be the surest way to remedy against news organisations that fail to put safeguards in place when broadcasting unverified reports.

When it comes to the quest to be the first to break the news, mainstream media practitioners are daily jettisoning the ethics of their profession to join the race to beat the news clock. What happened in Egypt is a clear violation of the harm limitation principle which asks journalists to be judicious about naming criminal suspects prior to the formal filing of charges.

Unfortunately, it is a recurring decimal in today’s news dissemination quest where journalists and content producers flagrantly show the faces of juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes before trial, and place no sanctity on the human person. We are grossly guilty of pandering to lurid curiosity and the salacious inclinations of our audience at the expense of the people we cover.

In most parts of North America and the developed world, a wrestling programme is preceded by warnings about the violence and caution for viewers not to attempt the stunts. Content containing flash photography known to affect people with certain medical conditions are also advertised prior to broadcast as well as clips depicting disturbing images.

In the annual ritual when humanitarian agencies exploit the appalling conditions of children in canvassing for funds the children’s faces and their appalling conditions are flagrantly shown. Broadcasting these images contribute to the perpetuation of notions of underdevelopment of certain races. It can be argued that the wide publication of these images could negatively affect the psyche of these children as they grow into adulthood but this fact is completely ignored.

Until recently, trial by media was widely used in countries such as Nigeria where the police parades suspects they are investigating before they have been charged. This practice exposes the suspects, their children and relatives to ridicule, opprobrium and psychological trauma. The law proclaims everybody innocent until they have been tried and convicted by law.

There are other images from across the continent. One is the use of horrific images of the Baga massacre on social media. Others include horrendous images of victims of the seleka and anti-balaka crisis in Central African Republic or the bloody battles in Southern Sudan. The atrocious beheading of victims by Boko Haram in Nigeria get millions of views on social media, same for official decapitations in Saudi Arabia.

In the era of radicalisation, the onus lies on creators of content to be conscious of the dignity of the human person; they should forewarn consumers about images likely to shock them or steer clear of using them in the first place. Where this is inevitable, the camera should be kept away from the faces of subjects.

In interviews protecting the identity of eyewitnesses should be a priority when speaking to reformed members of terror groups exposing the modus operandi of their quondam friends. In most cases, some are so wracked by guilt that they often see confession as personal retribution; it is the responsibility of the professional to protect them against reprisal attacks.

Victims of sexual or other forms of violence in convalescence should have their identities shielded as well as the identity of facilities treating them. Victims of terror attacks whose assailants or possible sympathisers are still at large should be protected. Commercial interests should never override chastity, reputation and the sanctity of the human lifeThe_Shackles_of_Shame.Image courtesy


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