Social Court Reporting

The Bo Xilai case in China has been more like a reality TV show than a criminal trial. Seriously I feel like I should be texting in ‘SAVE BO’ to 191 545.

The former Conhquing party politician is being charged with bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

The media spectacular has attracted millions of followers online. All glued to the minute-by-minute proceedings published live on this SinaWiebo microblogging page.  (Note: This site is in Chinese)

Now I’m not too sure how many of you have actually ever read a fraud case but the legal concepts are really pretty dry. Don’t believe me? Try this case out.

If all trials were run like this (especially fraud cases) they would be so much more exciting!

But is this really the future of court reporting in China?

Some such as Professor Tong Zewie believe this is a breakthrough and will lead to more open trials in China. He believes this case will set precedent for the future and hopes that China is led away from the judicial corruption which it has historically been plagued with.

However, others are not so convinced with sceptics voicing their opinion that the Chinese government is just attempting to create a sense of transparency for political reasons.

The main criticism is that the Chinese government has only chosen this case because of the strong resentment towards Xilai from Chinese citizens. Therefore the likely incarceration and the trial in itself is not likely the cause political controversy.

Some even go further, such as this feisty blog, which argues that the trial is merely a PR stunt.

Only time will tell but hopefully this is a step for China towards the right to a fair trial and a wider application of the rule of law.

Who’s the Twit in the Court?

As demonstrated by recent Australian high profile criminal cases, such as the Meagher, Morcombe and Baden-Clay murders, the justice system are having to consider the effects of new media on the governing constitutional right to a fair trial.

In the USA and UK there have been a number of cases whereby jurors and witnesses have been caught using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to comment on the case they are involved with.

Legally this amounts to contempt of court and is considered a serious violation of the justice system.

Although this is not yet a major issue affecting Australian courts, NSW have decided to cut the head off the snake enacting an amendment to the NSW Court Security Act (2005).

The newly incorporated section prohibits the ‘unauthorised transmission of court proceedings from the courtroom’ including communication through the use of tablets, smartphones and laptops.

Violation of this act carries with it fines of up to $22,000 and up to 12 months imprisonment.

There has been a significant amount of backlash amongst journalists in relation to these amendments arguing that the restrictions are a violation of freedom of speech. However, under section 9(2)(d) of the act, journalists and lawyers are exempt from the provision.

Which begs the question of whether this is just another overreaction from the media?

Yes it is true, the act eradicates citizen journalism in the courtrooms as explored in this blog.

However, it must be remembered that this is an individual’s life we are talking about not the newest Cake Pop recipe on Pinterest.

Court reporting should be left to professional journalists who have extensive knowledge of the laws and understand the degree of sensitivity needed in addressing legal proceedings.  This appears to be a move in the right direction towards a more amiable coexistence between new media and the courts.

Opening the Courts

Earlier this month the Open Court Bill 2013 entered the Legislative Assembly in Victoria. The bill predominately concerns the issuing of media suppression orders by the courts.

Over the past few years Victoria has been dubbed the suppression order capital of Australia and there has been criticism that the long-standing “open justice principle” is being jeopardised.

Currently the courts are meant to enforce an order only in select circumstances such as cases involving children, sexual offenders, national security and police informers. However, there is not a closed list of categories and judges are able to issue an order in any case that they believe it is necessary to do so.

Not only is there uncertainty in regards to how often suppression orders are made but there is also concern over whether in the digital age they are still effective.

Often case information that has been suppressed from publication is readily accessed online despite traditional media outlets adhering to the order. Particularly since the raise of social media these kind of orders are being undermined as the everyday individual publishes material that they may not even be aware has been suppressed.

This was well demonstrated in the UK with the scandal involving a football player that was “unable to be named” but which was well known to be Manchester United’s, Ryan Giggs.

Despite the argument that suppression orders are now pointless they do serve an important protectionist role, particularly in regards to children and victims of sexual offences.

The bill will hopefully see a return of the original purpose of suppression orders, which is to safeguard the vulnerable and ensure a fair trial, while opening up the court system by restricting orders made merely to save prominent figures from embarrassment.

Interested? Read more here.