A government panel on judicial reform is working on a bill that would create a Japanese version of the jury system. The idea is to allow selected citizens to work together with professional judges in deciding major criminal cases. The worry is that the bill might impose undue restrictions on media contact with these “citizen judges.”

The panel says that in order to secure a fair trial it would be necessary to make sure that jurors (citizen judges) do not make any partial judgment based on media reports and to protect them and witnesses from intimidation and other threats. To that end, the argument goes, media coverage should be restricted.

The need to avoid biased judgment goes without saying. The possibility remains, however, that such regulatory measures might lead to undue media restrictions unless they are kept within reasonable bounds. The panel, therefore, will have to make every possible effort to dispel such concerns.

This is not the only bill that threatens freedom of expression. There are already a number of potentially media-restrictive bills in the pipeline. One aims to safeguard government-held personal data. A second is intended to create an official body to redress human rights abuses. A third is designed to protect minors from information related to sex and violence. All three bills include provisions that would restrict reporting activities.

As for the jury bill, any measure that might interfere with media activities needs to be worked out through hearings and inquiries with umbrella media organizations, such as the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan and the Japan Magazine Publishers Association.

The government is expected to send the bill to the Diet in 2004. The panel debate on the citizen judge system — the first round ended in September — is still at an embryonic stage. A full-dress debate is expected to begin next year. However, media regulation is already a subject of discussion.

For instance, a panel member was quoted as saying the following at a July session: “The question is what a citizen judge should do when he or she is approached by the media. This is a very important question that involves freedom of the press.” Similarly, an official of the panel’s secretariat suggested a need to restrict media contact with jurors as well as publication of their personal information.

At a more recent session in September, a Justice Ministry official also called for such restrictions, saying in effect that violators should be punished. Meanwhile, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations said in its reform blueprint that media should not be allowed to contact jurors or would-be jurors for reporting purposes.

Trial by jury — a group of citizens delivering a verdict of guilty or not guilty — is common practice in the United States and Britain. The proposed system, however, is said to be closer to the collegiate system in Germany and France, where citizens and judges reach a verdict through consultation.

Media activity is also regulated to ensure fair trial. In Britain, for example, the 1981 contempt-of-court act allows courts to issue an injunction when the fairness of proceedings is seriously endangered. In principle, the media is prohibited, while the trial is on, from publishing sensitive information, such as the defendant’s criminal record, as well as speculative reports on a verdict. Violations are punishable.

The panel is expected to discuss regulatory measures in reference to such foreign systems and practices. The hope is that it will resist the temptation to ban all reporting activity in its eagerness to secure the fairness of a trial and the safety of jurors and witnesses. Media regulation should be considered on the same footing as general rules that apply to ordinary citizens.

At the same time, the media needs to strengthen self-discipline and establish its own rules. The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has issued a statement calling for restraint on the kind of “mass reporting” that has drawn public criticism in recent years. Media organizations need to set guidelines concerning the planned jury system as well. Voluntary efforts by individual media companies are also essential.

The citizen judge system is expected to enhance the public sense of participation in the trial process and improve the nation’s justice system along more democratic lines. It is a move long overdue. The media has an important role to play in making sure that the new system succeeds.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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