A Social Trial: the crime of commenting

justiceIn the peaceful years before social media intruded on every aspect of our lives, criminal proceedings where discussed in person, not put into concrete form via the internet.

Now, social media seems to be smirking at contempt laws, with people writing their views on criminal matters on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, with little regard for the consequences.

The 2012 murder investigation of Jill Meagher highlights the risk of putting your two-cents worth in via social media. Meagher’s husband, Tom repeatedly pleaded with the public to be considerate and careful when commenting on news websites or on their personal social media sites.

tom meagher“And while I really appreciate all the support I just would like to mention that negative comments on social media may hurt legal proceedings, so please be mindful of that,” Tom Meagher told press in September last year.

Yet people still insisted on calling for the suspect to be found guilty, and ridiculing him with a collection of names. I thought Australians stood for innocence until found guilty, not the other way around.

These actions can interfere with finding an unbiased jury, and could also increase the chances of a mistrial being called, dragging out what can only be an incredibly painful process for Jill Meagher’s family.

police brutality mardi gras

A still from the video

The start of this week has seen a video from Saturday night’s Mardi Gras floating around social media. The video depicts alleged police brutality against an attendee of the parade. Police are urging caution when condemning the police for their actions saying the video is out of context and only represents a snippet of what occurred between an individual and the police.

It’s a fair argument considering the conclusions from an investigation into alleged police brutality at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The investigation into the incident in which a police officer was filmed repeatedly punching a fan found that the officer’s actions were justified as the fan had attempted to grab something from the police officer’s holster.

Let’s just think about what police carry on their holster: their gun, a taser, a baton, capsicum spray.

The incident filmed at the Mardi Gras in Sydney is of grave concern, but is it helping the police force to instantly condemn them based on footage depicting 30 or so seconds of an already volatile situation?

Everyone, even the police force, are entitled to a fair trial, a fair investigation. Social media has become a dangerous tool used to infect the masses against an individual. But users need to be wary when commenting, as they could be in in contempt of court.

Courts can only operate effectively if they are free from outside interference. Comments across social media about the guilty nature of police officers, murder suspects and any defendant do not help the course of justice in Australia.

This incident needs to be allowed to be investigated before a man is condemned by social media.

Both the victim and the defendant need to be allowed to voice their side of the story to the investigators; a story which should not be commented or circulated on social media or online during any investigation proceedings.

Witnesses should go and submit their statements and not discuss the incident online, much as they would do if they had been subpoenaed  to court.

Social media is and never will be the appropriate place to discuss active investigations or court proceedings.

filming iphoneIf you do happen to record an incident, rather than upload it to the internet to create a controversy thrashing public demanding for blood, do the right thing and submit it to the authorities along with a written statement. If you’re unsure of an investigation, chase it up, submit the footage to a watchdog service and contact the Minister for Police. Uploading content to the web should be a last resort, and if you choose to take that path, you must do so in the knowledge that if there is an investigation, any negative comments could harm proceedings.

We all have the technology to film these incidents, and we should know our rights. You can film police in public, and you can film them on private property as long as you have the owner’s consent.

To confirm this, the ACT arm of the AFP told Crikey: “Members of the public have the right to take photographs and/or film police officers, and incidents involving police officers, which are observable from a public space, or from a privately owned place with the consent of the owner [or] occupier.” And from the NSW Police: “Police do not have the power to prevent anyone from photographing or filming them and cannot confiscate camera equipment or delete images and recordings.”

Anti-terrorism laws in New South Wales can make filming an incident more murky, and police can ask you to stop filming if your actions are obstructing their work.

Let’s take a pause, and wait for the conclusions of the investigation into the incident on Saturday night. Australians shouldn’t stand for police brutality, but we also shouldn’t stand for trials by media.  Australia prides itself on a fair judicial system. Let’s not ruin that with an overzealous, judgemental social media using public.

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