News

Media reporting on criminal investigations needs change: Forensic academics

  • Forensic academic notes need to safeguard victims’ and suspects’ rights, rule of law

BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

The media law, ethics, and professionalism, especially with regard to reporting on criminal investigations, require urgent and rapid growth in order to safeguard the rights of victims and suspects and to uphold the rule of law.

This need of the hour was highlighted by I. Gooneratne (attached to the Peradeniya University’s Medical Faculty’s Forensic Medicine Department) in a research article on “Criminal or forensic investigations in Sri Lanka and the media responsibility: The need for substantive media law and enforceable media ethics in Sri Lanka” which was published in the Sri Lanka Journal of Forensic Medicine, Science, and Law’s Sixth Volume’s First Issue in November 2015. 

A free, fair, and well-developed media is, Gooneratne argued, a reflection of democracy. He however noted that the freedom of the media needs to be exercised with a sense of responsibility, accountability, and transparency while upholding the rule of law. The freedom of expression through the media, he pointed out, does not entail a right to override the rule of law or another’s right to privacy. 

Hence, Gooneratne sought to discuss the involvement of the media in the criminal or forensic investigation process and its possible adverse consequences, thereby making an argument to establish and propagate media legislation especially in reference to reporting on criminal investigations whilst emphasising the need for media professionalism, training, and an enforceable set of media ethics for media personnel and units. In this regard, he analysed two cases involving the criminal and forensic investigation process and the media coverage of the same.

Publishing details of ongoing criminal or forensic investigations

The suspects

The media, both electronic and print media, he noted, are of the habit of publishing the full details of suspects under investigation. 

The famous Seya Sadewmi rape and murder case in Kotadeniyawa, Gampaha, in September 2015, where a four-year-old girl was allegedly abducted, sexually abused and raped, and murdered, is a case in point. This case was covered by all local media along with all details, photographs, videos, and audios. The media, Gooneratne elaborated, used the victim’s fate to advance their financial and media popularity and were inconsiderate to the plight of the victim, the suspects, and the family concerned including through the targeting of the parents, neighbours, and the family.

Explaining further, Gooneratne noted that in a child abuse case, the perpetrators are more likely to be a family member, relative, or a close associate of the child, and that therefore, while the investigators should have suspicion on the parents or neighbours, this however must not obliterate the fact that the issue is under investigation and that thus far no one has been found guilty by a competent court. “The way in which the media portrayed or rather creatively dramatised this incident, it made an environment not only for the public to judge and incriminate the parents and the rest of the other suspects consecutively and perpetually, but it also provoked the public to behave in an unlawful manner. Due to this, the parents were not allowed by the public to be fully involved with the funeral functions.”

Next in this case was the arrest of a school boy who was in the neighbourhood of the deceased child, in connection with her rape and murder. He was under 18 years of age and should have been considered a juvenile and protected by child rights (the United Nations [UN] Convention of the Rights of the Child) and the law for juveniles, that applies to children in conflict with the law (the Beijing Rules – the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice). It is, Gooneratne emphasised, illegal to show the identities of juveniles or juvenile delinquents under criminal investigation, which should be kept strictly confidential. However, in the instant case, the media published the name, photographs, videos of arrest, and the whereabouts of this juvenile suspect and also the fact that he was in possession of pornographic material on his private computer. The deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) test performed on this juvenile suspect subsequently came back negative and he was accordingly released from further investigations.

The next event in this case was the arrest of a man from a nearby place known by the alias “Kondaya”. According to the media reports, he had previous incidents of arrests for the alleged sexual abuse of a child. Armed with this history and the peculiar behaviour of this suspect in the eyes of the media, the latter began to write articles after articles, incriminating and judging this suspect along with this man’s pictures and videos of his arrest. For some people in the media, the “look” of this suspect was not “ordinary” while others claimed that he was definitely responsible for the offence due to a confession he had made to the Police. The media portrayed a false, prejudicial, biased, and judgmental opinion about the alleged criminality of this suspect taken into custody which convinced many, based on the impression created in the public, that he was the culprit. The DNA test from this suspect also came back negative.

The injuries caused by these actions of the media (publishing names and photographs of suspects) to the suspects are manifold and the irreparable damage included the mental agony the suspects had to go through during the investigation process; for example, the juvenile suspect having difficulty attending school due to having to face bullying and insults while the other suspects too had issues in facing the families, the society, and finding employment, etc. 

The actions by the media to publish the full identification details of the suspects with the photographs and videos are not only unethical, but also illegal and unconstitutional. The Fundamental Rights Chapter III of the Constitution stipulates in Article 13 (5) that every person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty unless the burden of proof is on the accused. Gooneratne observed that the heavy involvement of the media in this case led to public unrest, as a result of which the Police were stressed and the entire criminal investigation was forced to be executed hastily as the media claim of police inefficiency in apprehending the wrongdoers triggered the Police to catch someone in order to evade imminent embarrassment, which inadvertently led to the arrest of the said juvenile despite the absence of justifiable suspicion. Moreover, the suspects had allegedly been tortured and brutalised by the Police to provide a confession. 

The victims

The media also exhibited the facial identity of the victim with the traumatic injuries and at times the photographs of the naked child victim (Sadewmi) and in the process deliberately ignored the plight the family and the victim had to go through when these pictures and videos were in the public domain.

Gooneratne also noted another case where a young adult female had jumped into a river in the Kandy area, allegedly to die by suicide, but had subsequently been rescued by villagers. In this instance, the media had rushed to the scene and telecasted the victim with her face on video, thereby disregarding the fact that she had attempted to die suicide, presumably due to undergoing severe mental health issues. Such telecasting of the victim’s identity, Gooneratne pointed out, would not in any way help the victim cope with her issues. Hence, Gooneratne emphasised that if the media wished to take such incidents to the public, it could have done so with more maturity, professionalism, and ethics.

The officers involved

In the Sadewmi case, the media mentioned the names of the experts who conducted the forensic investigations and the places where the investigations were done. In this regard, Gooneratne explained that if such criminal cases involved underworld figures or powerful individuals, the experts in question could be placed at risk of harm or the evidence collected could be jeopardised due to the risk of possible vandalism which would in turn directly affect the process of the administration of justice.

Moreover, Gooneratne noted that the jurors and judicial officers who watch or read the creative media stories and hear or see sensitive and traumatic pictures and videos prior to such evidence being presented in court, may have some degree of prejudice or emotion that may be detrimental to the administration of justice, as the public unrest and opinion created by the media on such issues may confound the objective assessment of the evidence. There is also the issue of, Gooneratne observed, certain investigators, institutes, or forensic practitioners who crave cheap media popularity, acting to highlight their media image.

“Media freedom should be upheld together with media independence and pluralism in the media. However, the right to such expression is not above the rule of law or the right to privacy. The right to information does not entail any right to divulge personal information (Section 5 of the Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016) such as how one lives, eats, etc., to the public which can in turn infringe upon the privacy of a suspect who is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Although media freedom advocates the freedom to consume whatever information or entertainment we want, from whatever sources we choose, without the Government restricting our choices, the limit of this freedom is the personal rights of others to their privacy, against defamation, against one’s dignity, the rule of law, and respecting the privacy and constitutional rights of the individual,” Gooneratne concluded.

If you’re affected by the above content or if you/someone you know may be dealing with a similar situation, the following institutions would assist you:

Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs helpline: 1938

Women In Need (WIN) 24-hour hotline: 077 567 6555

Sri Lanka Police Child and Women Bureau: 011 244 4444

NDDCB emergency hotline: 1927

Mel Madura (Sumithrayo): 0112694665