JES, Judiciary to work with media to change traditional ways of reporting court matters
Coverage of the judicial system ensures the media fulfils part of its watchdog function. It is also an important task for the media, since the Judiciary is one of the three branches of Government and there is a great deal of interest in how the courts operate.
However, judicial officers including Judges and Magistrates, and even lawyers have complained about sensationalistic reporting that is inaccurate, short on facts, and in favour of either the prosecution or defence.
In this regard, the Judicial Education Institute of Guyana and the Guyana Press Association (GPA) recently collaborated with the Justice Education Society (JES) – a Canadian non-profit legal organisation – to host three webinars, the last of which concluded on January 23, 2021, to combat the weaknesses in coverage of the courts.
The interactive sessions featured Judges and Magistrates educating journalists, members of the Guyana Police Force, University of Guyana students, representatives of civil society, and social services providers about the complexities of the justice systems.
There were also presentations on the structure of the judicial system, legal terminologies, publications ban, specialised courts, the big question of bail, principles of sentencing, how to access the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, ethics of media professionals.
During a recent interview with GPA President Nazima Raghubir, JES Guyana Country Representative, Rolinda Kirton said that members of the Judiciary have been very vocal on the need to work with the media on its coverage of court cases and to make the courts more accessible to the public through various means.
Kirton reminded of a two-day seminar on reporting on criminal investigations and court cases that was facilitated by JES in 2017 in which veteran Canadian Journalist, Kim Bolan from the Vancouver Sun, a Canadian newspaper, shared her expertise. According to Kirton, the Judiciary capitalised on this opportunity as it was already exploring the route of using social media for outreach, information, and education.
Chancellor of the Judiciary Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards in giving opening remarks at the first webinar held on December 5, 2020, emphasised the important role the media plays in the healthy functioning of a democratic society.
“The Judiciary is not alone in our goal to serve justice. It has been said that the media acts as the society’s watchdog or the public watchdog. There is the principle of open justice and you also feature prominently in that system. The principle of open justice requires court proceedings to be accessible to the public and the media.”
According to the Chancellor, even though the COVID-19 pandemic might have affected the functioning of the Judiciary, the media was there every step of the way as the courts tried to keep the wheels of justice turning, and its doors open to ensure that cases were heard.
High Court Judge Brassington Reynolds noted that the law and the media have become inescapably intertwined because a relatively small portion of the public has direct experience with the justice system, and as such public knowledge and views of law and the legal system are largely dependent on media representations.
Raghubir said that media representatives have to make it their duty to understand legal terms, understand how to break them down for the public, understand the legal processes and dissect those processes so that members of the public who are accessing the court can understand them too.
“We have to ensure that there is fair coverage, accurate coverage and that the information we are putting out there can stand up to scrutiny,” Raghubir urged those in attendance.
The webinar series was co-organised by the Judicial Education Institute of Guyana, the GPA, and the “Strengthening the Criminal Justice System in Guyana” project funded by the US Government through the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and implemented by JES of British Columbia.
JES’s mission is to build strong communities by promoting the understanding of, access to, and confidence in justice systems both in Canada and internationally.
“We Can Still Hear You”
To build public trust and confidence in the judicial system, the Judiciary of Guyana last December launched its public education and engagement programme. Another objective of the programme is to assure the citizenry that the wheels of justice are turning despite the COVID-19 crisis, which has in many ways affected the functioning of the Judiciary.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the Judiciary commenced a campaign titled: “We Can Still Hear You” which helped to assure citizens that, despite the pandemic, the judicial system continued to function, and there was access to justice as their matters could still be heard.
The campaign featured judicial officers delivering messages on social media, via the court’s website, and radio. According to acting Chief Justice Roxane George, “This opened up a new dimension in our relationship with the citizenry, by having leaders in the Judiciary speak directly to the public about the rule of law and access to justice.”
Access to justice in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing continued expansion, as the Judiciary employs a range of technology and platforms for hearing matters.
The Chief Justice said that these new measures embrace the flexibility of where Judges, Magistrates, claimants, defendants, prosecutors, the Police, complainants, and accused could be located at the time of a hearing or trial.