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The menace of trial by social media: Public needs to be better informed about the law and basic processes

It has become a familiar sequence of events. A court case makes the news, netizens pick on something and get outraged on social media, criticising everyone from the judge to journalists.

The menace of trial by social media: Public needs to be better informed about the law and basic processes

It would be useful for the public to know what a criminal charge is and how a case progresses, from the charging stage to whether an accused pleads guilty or claims trial, says the author.

It has become a familiar sequence of events.

A court case makes the news, netizens pick on something and get outraged on social media, criticising everyone from the judge to journalists.

This worrying trend of a public backlash that only skims the surface has no doubt been amplified by social media and a greater interest in such court stories.

Yet a key factor is also a lack of knowledge about how the justice system works and how the media report court cases.

This is sometimes exacerbated by careless reading of news reports of court cases and a propensity to react in a knee-jerk way.

Mr Josephus Tan, director of Invictus Law Corporation, concurs that there should be a greater public understanding of basic court processes, as crime cases are a staple of society.

Yet most Singaporeans do not try to learn more about judicial procedures that don’t directly affect them, he notes.

“Due to a lack of legal knowledge and/or misinformation on the internet, many Singaporeans tend to speculate, complain, gossip and/or engage in conspiracy theories about whatever legal cases/processes they read in our mainstream media and/or found on some online ‘legal junkyards’,” he said.

“And it is troubling to see a prevailing trend of ‘lynch mob mentality’ and ‘misinformed public vigilantism’ in our society these days.”

The bottomline is this: The public should allow for the due process of the law and not be quick to compare the sentences of cases as if they are apple for apple.

After all, judges arrive at verdicts based on an array of evidence and circumstances, and no two cases are exactly the same.

Judges also take into account a slew of factors, as well as sentencing precedents and the maximum sentences prescribed by law, when meting out punishments on those convicted of offences.

NEWS REPORTING OF COURT CASES

For criminal law, it would be useful for the public to know what a charge is and how a case progresses, from the charging stage to whether an accused pleads guilty or claims trial.

Take for example the case last month of Finnish cyclist Salminen Toni Timo, who was sentenced to one week in jail for causing the death of a pedestrian while cycling along Sims Avenue.

He was convicted of causing death by a negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, given that there was no intention to kill someone.

But many online called for Timo to be treated like a murderer or killer.

Take another case that recently attracted heated comments: The charging of Alverna Cher, a funeral director, with culpable homicide over her ex-boyfriend’s death in May 2020.

Members of the public clamoured for more details of what had happened, when the due court process had just begun. 

What seems to be lost on the public is that the media have to take into account sub judice considerations that bar reporting that could prejudice hearings.

Often, the full picture of a case only emerges during a trial where, among other things, different accounts by the suspects, victims, or witnesses are contested. If an accused person pleads guilty, he or she will admit to a certain set of facts. 

For cases that have concluded, it is also not uncommon to see netizens questioning the media for not naming certain convicted persons, even though the news report explicitly stated that this was because there was a gag order by the court to prevent the identification of the victim(s).

In more extreme cases, TODAY has received calls or email messages from accused or convicted persons, or their families, asking that their names be removed from news reports or for the articles to be taken down altogether to protect their privacy.

Obviously, these requests are turned down.

If there is no gag order against the publication of the names of accused persons, surely the media has to serve public interest and not omit their names. 

In the same vein, relevant details in court documents are also fully reported.

It is also not helpful for the public to suggest that nationality or race plays a part in sentences meted out.

Mr Ashwin Ganapathy, a partner at IRB Law, tells me this is the biggest misconception he has come across in criminal cases.

“In my experience, whether you are local or not, the courts treat you all the same,” he added. “People must understand that no two cases are identical. They may be similar but nuances in the cases may result in one offender receiving a lighter sentence compared to another offender.”

Another common misconception: Offenders who commit sexual crimes against underage victims must be described as rapists or sexual assaulters.

This usually happens when they are charged with sexual penetration of a minor, such as Yap Lee Kok, a 57-year-old man who was given 18 months’ jail in October for sex acts with a girl then aged 14.

When reporting on cases like Yap’s, the media must follow the law.

If an accused is not charged with rape or sexual assault by penetration, we cannot describe them as such.

So how can the public learn more about court processes and the law on their own?

Mr Tan, who has taken on several controversial cases, said that many Singaporeans think they would not know the law unless they read or practise it.

But that is far from the truth.

“There is no lack of information out there but perhaps only a lack of willingness to be informed,” he added.

There are explanatory documents readily found on the respective court websites, detailing how a case can progress from charging to sentencing.

The Supreme Court website explains civil case processes too.

Online platforms such as Singapore Legal Advice, which also has an Instagram presence, are also great resources in understanding the law better, especially when certain court cases make headlines.

These are helpful in breaking things down simply for laypeople to understand.

One can be justifiably outraged with the right knowledge. On the other hand, ignorant or hateful comments only serve to generate more heat than light.

As Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon stressed last week, society’s regard for and trust in the courts is “extremely precious”.  

Having civil and informed discussions, amid a healthy interest in what goes on in Singapore’s courtrooms, would go a long way in upholding that.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Louisa Tang is a TODAY journalist who covers the court and crime beat.

Related topics

court crime judge legal law

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