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Friday, June 6, 2008

Media frets 'right to know' limits ahead of lay judge system debut

Staff writer

A TV network news director's dilemma: Preparing a story on a string of sensational random killings, is it proper to add a neighbor's comment that the teenage boy arrested for the crimes was trouble waiting to happen?

News photo
Herd mentality: Members of the media swarm a van carrying a defendant to the Hiroshima High Court on April 22 for a high-profile murder trial. KYODO PHOTO

Not only is that quote — "I knew the boy would do something like this" — an attention-grabber, but from a journalist's perspective, serves the public's right to know about those they live among. Authorities have caught flak in the past for not heeding the warnings of scared citizens, and keeping others in the community in the dark about what may be lurking in their midst.

But such reportage can also be prejudicial to a potential juror, and therein lies the rub.

Kojiro Watanabe, a veteran crime reporter at TV Asahi, even calls such quotes "very juicy" and would not commit to leaving these tidbits out of his stories even after the lay judge system debuts next May, he told a recent Tokyo symposium on media ethics and ways to avoid untoward influence on the de facto jurors.

Reporting potential prejudicial information, however, is exactly what Masahiro Hiraki, councilor general of the Criminal Affairs Bureau at the Supreme Court, wants to keep from lay judges, including those tapped to sit on trials of sensational, and widely reported, crimes.

The neighbor's quote "would not be desirable," Hiraki said, unless it was possibly run with a balancing, complementary comment toward the accused. "Broadcasters should be very careful about how they present such footage."

With less than a year before the lay judge system debuts, media organizations, fearing criticism that their coverage may sway lay judges, are grappling with how far they can go in covering trials and crime.

"The lay judge system is a double-edged sword. If it works, that's great. But if it goes in the wrong direction, it will be a disaster," Takashi Tachibana, a media critic who has written books on politics and current affairs, told the May 30 symposium at the University of Tokyo in Bunkyo Ward, hosted by the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization. Known as BPO, the group was established in 2003 by broadcasting companies and people in related fields.

Hiraki is concerned that the way the mass media currently report on crimes will flood the lay judges with confusing information.

For example, he said, reporting that an accused has confessed during interrogation may be misleading because of the chances that such an admission was coerced or just flat-out false.

He also believes media coverage of a suspect's upbringing, personal comments from acquaintances and, when the occasion arises, past criminal history may detract from the presumption of innocence and thus prejudice the lay judges.

Hiraki added that reporting on evidence presented by police and prosecutors is not necessarily objective because those parties assume a suspect is guilty, and thus such coverage can be misleading.

The media should not stop reporting about crimes but should as much as possible balance freedom of the press with the right of the accused to a fair trial, he said.

The Supreme Court has been telling the public that lay judges should only view evidence presented in court to reach their verdict, "but that is very difficult for ordinary people," Hiraki said.

Tachibana, Watanabe, Kenji Miki, an editorial writer at the Mainichi Shimbun, and Hidekazu Tomoi of NHK partially accepted Hiraki's argument, but they also stressed that the media have a social responsibility to inform.

"We sometimes feel we've invaded someone's privacy and are rude and thoughtless in soliciting comments from relatives of murder victims or suspects, but we try to hold our heads high because we believe our reporting helps prevent further crimes and makes society safer," Miki said.

Tomoi said the media's responsibility to better inform the public will only grow when the lay judge system debuts, because these jurors will be chosen at random and courts will try to limit the information they will be exposed to.

Watanabe said biased reporting stems from a lack of information, and thus the media should always strive to do the "perfect job."

"This is where I stand, and that will never change," he said.

"I expect lay judges to have common sense, get information from the media and come up with a verdict based only on the facts and evidence" as presented in court.

University of Tokyo Executive Vice President Junichi Hamada, a professor in the graduate school of interdisciplinary information studies, said it is unrealistic to think there can be clearly defined rules on what to, and not to, report.

The media must assess the legitimacy of their reporting on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The media will always draw criticism, Watanabe said.

"If we run news (on crimes), we'll definitely infringe on somebody's rights and privacy. But we are in the business of providing as much information to the public as possible, and this comes with a social burden," he said. "Regrettably, the media occasionally go too far."

Tachibana, a member of BPO's committee for investigating broadcasting ethics, is wholeheartedly on Watanabe's side.

"Excessive reporting is normal. It's even healthy for a democratic society," he said.

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