Media must not hold 'kangaroo courts'

Updated: 2013-03-08 07:07

By Ku Ma (China Daily)

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The death of Haobo, a two-month-old baby, in Changchun, Jilin province, is an enormous tragedy for his family as well as the entire society.

On Monday, it was reported that the baby had gone missing along with the car, a Toyota RAV4, that his father surnamed Xu had left him in with the key in the ignition when he went inside the supermarket where he worked for a few minutes.

Xu called the local radio station and police both for help. Local media outlets and social media messages mobilized thousands of the city's taxi drivers and residents to join about 3,500 police officers in the search for the baby. On Tuesday evening, Zhou Xijun, 48, surrendered to police saying he had strangled the baby and buried the body in snow near a countryside road after stealing the car.

Netizens, including many celebrities, have lashed out at the suspect. Many microbloggers have demanded that "the murderer be punished with lingchi" (dismembering the body), one of the cruelest ways of putting a person to death.

The public furor over the murder of the baby is understandable but, more importantly, the incident should teach society to take measures to avoid a similar tragedy rather than only baying for the murderer's blood.

This also is the time to reflect on the media's role as investigators into a crime. The debate on media-justice relationship during a trial is old. Thanks to social media, nowadays many criminal cases are "exposed" in the early stages of investigation. Criminal cases, especially those involving vulnerable people who can easily touch people's nerves, are a favorite of the press.

In the Changchun case, some newspapers have even insisted that the manhunt mobilized by the media reports and social networks "showed full responsibility for life". But since the suspect turned himself in and no details are yet known, such a claim is self-righteous.

Media reports on criminal investigations, in most cases, are a double-edged sword. On one hand, people have the right to know if some crimes threaten public safety, and some reports on criminal investigation indeed help supervise police and prevent travesty of justice. On the other hand, misleading reports on criminal investigations can harm police investigation or provide clues to suspects to escape, or even prompt them to target hostages or witnesses for revenge.

If the media insist such sensationalization of investigations into crimes is for good, the possibility of a similar tragedy occurring cannot be ruled out.

Moreover, even at the investigation stage, social networks are agog with calls for handing Zhou the death penalty. It's absolutely true that every criminal deserves punishment according to law. But even before the trial has started, social as well as many traditional media have posted photographs of the suspect with captions saying "this is the man who killed the two-month old baby". Such reporting is tantamount to delivering justice through trial by the media and will not bring any comfort to the family of the victim.

Many netizens have blamed Chinese people's inherent nature for the Changchun crime. To show how different people in other countries are and to prove their point they have cited the example of a carjacker in the United States, who called police to tell them where he had abandoned a car that he had stolen after he found a baby in it.

The New York Post did report the incident but told a contrasting story: the parents didn't call the local media after their baby and car had gone missing. Besides, the local media didn't sensationalize the case of the missing child. So contrary to what Chinese netizens claim, the "similar" incidents are not about human nature. Instead, they expose the gap in Chinese and US people's awareness of the rule of law.

According to the US justice census bureau, 5.8 million Americans aged 12 years and above fall victim to violence, which means 225 out of every 10,000 Americans are victims of violence. Reuters has reported that the number of murders and manslaughters in the US was 13,800 in 2011.

Public safety in China is a big concern, as the case of serial killer Zhou Kehua showed last year. But in general, violent cases have dropped to the lowest point in a decade, according to a blue paper of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. For instance, gun-related crimes dropped from more than 5,000 in 2000 to just more than 500 in 2011.

Compared with the US and other developed countries, China still has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the rule of law. And Chinese society, which includes individuals, media and social networks, needs to raise its awareness of the rule of law.

In 1998, the United Kingdom formed a Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, which published its research, The Effective Use of the Media in Serious Crime Investigations, a year later that can be seen as a guide to reporting crime. In Germany, the media follows a basic principle not to name a suspect until he pleads or is found guilty and sentenced. In 1987, Japanese lawyer association said media reporting should strike a balance between the public's right to know and exercising caution on reporting on criminal investigations.

In China, too, crime reporting should follow certain rules, and traditional and new media should avoid inappropriate reporting that may complicate criminal cases. They also should stop trying suspects in "media courts" because that is the job of the judicial department.

The author is a page editor with China Daily.

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