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Has principle of “innocent until proven guilty” fallen wayside?

By Ghui

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a phrase that is often bandied about. From popular cop shows on TV to courtroom dramas on the silver screen, this phrase has been repeated over and over again. While we are all familiar with the words, have we become desensitised to the true significance of those four words?

It is human nature to pre-judge. In the high-tension environment of a courtroom, it is easy to get emotionally swayed which could in turn, return a verdict that may not end up serving the course of justice. This is why such rigorous steps have been put in place as the judiciary evolved to ensure that this risk is mitigated. Indeed, this is one of the reasons cited for why jury trials were abolished in Singapore. It was thought that laypersons without a holistic knowledge of the law might be easily manipulated by the machinations of a wily lawyer.

With the advent of the Internet and the rapid evolution of the social media and blogs, which has revolutionalised the spread of information, has the sacrosanct principle of “innocent until proven guilty” fallen to the wayside?

Websites such as Stomp, Reddit and Hardware Zone all provide forums for the masses to freely discuss and trade ideas. While this is in itself a good thing, we need to be aware of the risks of confirmation bias, which can result in damaging consequences for the subjects of such discussions. We need to be mindful of the repercussions of irresponsible and baseless gossip.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about holding public figures responsible for the actions they have taken and the words they have uttered in that public capacity. What I am talking about is the Internet shaming and trolling of private citizens who have become public fodder as a result of a hitherto unproven allegation.

Take the recent podcast sensation “Serial” (https://serialpodcast.org/season-one) where presenter Sarah Koenig was able to show how media portrayals, typecasting and character assassinations can lead to dangerous conclusions being unjustly drawn. The instinct to subconsciously pre-judge based on previous information that we have heard affects even the best of us. Rumour mongering can therefore, influence how witnesses perceive a particular situation and even unconsciously affect the judge and the lawyers. This leads to not only a failure of the justice system but also ruins the lives of all involved who are rendered powerless in the onslaught of the masses.

Take what happened to Chee Soon Juan as an example. Is it unrealistic to make a calculated guess to say that he has been plagued by his past? From his numerous dates in court and wide coverage of misdeeds in the newspapers, many would have the impression that he is a rabble-rouser hell bent on causing trouble in otherwise serene Singapore.

During the time of election campaigning for GE2015, I was amazed at the sheer numbers of people who refused to vote for him despite his good campaigning because of what they had heard of him in the past. Few actually knew what he was detained for and even fewer knew about the exact nature of his misdeeds. All they knew were the phrases “troublemaker” and “rabble rouser”. Is there any doubt that in his case, he was not innocent until proven guilty?

This is where the relevance of “sub judice” comes into the picture. Loosely translated, it simply means commenting on an ongoing case, which could influence the outcome of a case and deprive the affected persons of a fair trial. This is a concept that Singapore Courts have repeatedly recognised in cases such as the Lynn Lee case and more recently, the Amos Yee case.

While it is certainly heartening that our judiciary recognises the dangers of sub judice, it is concerning that the principle is not evenly applied.  (Read "PM Lee’s remarks on 377a – sub judice contempt?").

Might it not be said that statements when uttered by persons in power hold much more sway than those of the common man?

Clearly, the quick and instantaneous nature of how stories are reported and information is relayed is a game changer which can have a serious impact on the outcome of cases, and in particular, high profile cases. Interpretations of situations by media outlets can also have damaging consequences.

A notable example would be the McCanns whose daughter has been missing since 2007. Media accusations of the parents’ irresponsibility quickly led to allegations that they were behind their daughter’s disappearance. Not only was this traumatic for the McCanns, it also diverted precious time and resources the wrong way.

What of individuals who may be charged but not yet convicted of crimes? Take Mr Ismail Atan for instance. At the time this article, "Lawyer charged with molesting woman" was published, he had not been found guilty. Yet, the paper saw it fit to publish his picture and full name. Mr Atan was eventually acquitted, but can his reputation fully recover after this type of coverage? Despite being innocent, he will be treated by the court of public opinion as a guilty man.

Recognising the possible recriminations of one’s words and actions and the effect it can have on the outcome of a particular matter both during and after a given trial is key. To ensure that the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” does not become a cliché phrase used only on TV, we need to be vigilant not only on what information we propagate, but also hold the media and public figures to account for what they say.