The law regarding the justice process is very clear – as
soon as a person is charged with an offence, especially murder, it
is illegal to publish anything about the accused that might
jeopardise them getting a fair trial. They are presumed innocent
until found guilty in court.
Newspapers, radio and television can't publish details of an
accused's prior convictions or charges against them. They
can't run any commentary on the guilt or innocence of the
accused. They can't publish photos or information about the
accused that may influence a witness or juror.
Break these laws and the publisher and reporter can be held in
contempt of court and face stiff penalties, even jail. Everybody
has the right to a fair trial, and these laws are designed to
prevent witnesses or juries being influenced by what they may see
in the media.
But today any individual who sets up a Facebook page, website or
Twitter account is, in effect, a publisher. Just like a
professional journalist, social media users are also subject to
The issue of how much social media can interfere with the
justice system has exploded after a man was charged with the rape
and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne.
The tragic case saw an understandable outpouring of grief, anger
and rage on social media. The unprecedented level of abuse and
rumours about the accused man prompted police to plead with people
not to post anything on social media that could "endanger the
accused's presumption of innocence as it had a very high
potential to interfere with the administration of
For three days police asked the US-based Facebook to take down
several Facebook pages that contained details of the accused
man's past and advocated violence against him. Even Mrs
Meagher's family begged Facebook to take down the sites as it
may give the defence a chance to argue he can't get a fair
trial. One site had more than 44,000 likes and was still growing
before Facebook finally agreed to remove the sites. But others have
This prompted debate on whether the law was out of date as
social media is unstoppable. Some asked whether the presumption
jurors would be influenced by such publications was right, and
perhaps it was time to trust jurors to stick to the evidence
produced in court to reach a just decision.
But until then, social media users should remember they could
end up in court for contempt of court or defamation.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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