Media in the court room

MY FOUR CENTAVOS - Dean Andy Bautista () - November 27, 2010 - 12:00am

The ongoing debate on whether the Maguindanao massacre trial should be mediavised (televised is no longer the technologically correct term) brings me back to an issue that I looked into before. In 1988, as a legal clerk to then Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan, I was tasked to research and help prepare a Court resolution on whether we should allow cameras inside the court room. This also led me to write an article which was published in the Ateneo Law Journal.

Background: Let me first provide a brief history on the evolution of the issue in the United States. It was the sensational coverage of the 1937 trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy which led Congress to enact Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibiting the broadcasting or photography of criminal cases. This was essentially the law until the 1981 case of Chandler v. Florida where the US Supreme Court unanimously upheld a conviction despite a part of the trial being televised over the accused’s objections. The Court, through Chief Justice Warren Burger, held that “television coverage was not an inherent violation of due process.”

The decision was seen as an invitation to allow television into the courtrooms. Today, all 50 states allow some form of media coverage. In 1991, a cable operator launched Court TV which, as of 2003, had signed up 70 million subscribers. 

At the very least, our Supreme Court should look into the possibility of using closed-circuit broadcast feeds for controversial cases. These were permitted in the 1998 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the 2001 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the first to be tried in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks. The use of this controlled television coverage may obviate the need for the victims’ families and friends to travel to Manila and incur unnecessary expense to observe the trial.

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The debate on media in the courtrooms raises interesting issues concerning democratic rights and individual liberties. Article III, section 14 of the 1987 Constitution mandates that an accused in a criminal case “shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved” and shall “have a speedy, impartial and public trial.” On the other hand, section 7 recognizes “the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.” Some of the main advantages and disadvantages in allowing media into the courtrooms include:

1. Pro: The right to a public trial also means that anyone can attend court proceedings. However, only a few get to enjoy this privilege since: a) they need to work; b) it will entail traveling and other costs; and c) court rooms are cramped with only a limited number of seats. Allowing media to cover such proceedings, will honor such right without the public having to sacrifice time and money to enjoy it. 

1. Con: By exposing the accused to mass media, the public may prejudge the case and reach a conclusion of guilt or innocence that may not coincide with the verdict of the judge. Moreover, this wholesale exposure to public scrutiny may be wholly unjustified if the accused is subsequently acquitted. Finally, is the motivation behind covering a trial the pursuit of a noble democratic right or an increase in television ratings? 

2. Pro: Since the general public is not regularly exposed to our court system, media coverage will improve confidence in our criminal justice system as a whole. Providing a spotlight on our judges should encourage efficiency, best practices and good behavior.

2. Con: Coverage may be harmful to victims and witnesses as it may deter the “shy” from complaining and providing evidence. Judges may play to the camera and render judgments that are in tune with public opinion but not in accord with the evidence presented. And judges who are incompetent or “misperform” in their functions will not inspire faith in our judiciary. 

3. Pro: Televised trials can counterbalance the sometimes biased slant of print media. The public will no longer have to rely on a newspaper report or the sketch of an artist but will be able to actually observe the court proceedings themselves.

3. Con: Television tends to focus on the sensational aspects of a case which may prejudice the search for truth. For example, a memorable shot in the OJ Simpson trial was his inability to put his hand inside the glove that was found near the murder scene. Television inordinately focused on this dramatic event instead of the scientific evidence presented on the possibility of the glove having shrunk.

4. Pro: Just like the instant replay feature used in tennis or American football, a video recording of the trial is a more accurate tool to use if the case is brought on appeal. Instead of relying merely on the stenographic notes, the appellate court would be able to observe the actual proceedings that transpired.

4. Con: In our jurisdiction, appellate courts are not, in theory, supposed to be triers of fact. And allowing video recordings to be used may further derail our already slow court processes.

In deciding on whether to allow mass media inside our courts, our Supreme Court should take judicial notice of numerous international studies that show that mediavising a trial does not necessarily prejudice the accused. And while the US Congress has not yet passed its “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act,” it is perhaps time to allow candles into our oftentimes dark Philippine courts.

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Plane fare?: I was on my way back to Manila last Sunday from Tagbilaran on board a PAL flight. After sitting in my assigned seat, I respectfully requested the stewardess for a newspaper. After telling me that newspapers will be distributed only after the flight had taken off, she moves to the business class section, pulls out a stack and starts to distribute them to the passengers seated therein. It was a good thing that my friend, Divina and Uy Law managing partner Nilo Divina, was sitting in the front row. He kindly gave me his newspaper and when the stewardess reappeared, asked for another copy. Not sure whether this is the standard operating procedure for our national flag carrier. Does a business class ticket also entitle the holder to read a newspaper earlier?  

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 “Things do not change, we change.”Henry David Thoreau

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