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Mediascape: Polite reminder: We are journalists, not judges

Thursday, January 21, year of Our Lord 2021. Citizen TV features a confession by a 22-year-old murder suspect in Kiambu, describing how and why she killed her grandmother, replete with a video clip of the suspect confessing where she hid the murder weapon and covered up the evidence.

This is, undoubtedly, what our newsrooms consider an exclusive.

But wait. Is it not a tenet of Kenyan law that one is innocent until proven guilty? Judges and magistrates have been known to warn suspects not to rush to plead guilty, and even ordered mental tests on suspects before allowing them to take a plea.

Why, many a court has thrown out ‘confessions’ by murder suspects on a hundred and one legal grounds.

But here we are, rushing to air ‘exclusives’ of persons pleading guilty to murder, not before a judge or magistrate, before the police or a private investigator; and before hidden cameras, recorders and notebooks.

This is at least the second time this has happened. We had another ‘exclusive’ of another ‘confession’ by yet another suspect, this time involving four murders in Kiambu, including graphic details aired on prime time news when entire families are gathered for a meal.

We daresay here that some of these murder stories ought to come with disclaimers, something like “viewers might find some of parts of the following story disturbing,” or “the following story is not recommended for family viewing.”

Confessions by killers are, by all definitions, exclusive stories for any journalist, more so, for the rare breed of journalists who practice investigative journalism.

This is precisely why some journalists will hover around death row cells like vultures, hoping to get the convicts locked therein to spill the beans on the why and how they killed their victims before their date with the hangman.

But wait. This is Kenya where, one, not all confessions are voluntary and, two, not all confessions are ‘confessions’ – not even those made inside a confessional to a priest. Besides, the rule of thumb is that skepticism is the hall mark of good journalism.

Suppose the courts later rule that the confession we aired is null and void; nay, suppose a very good lawyer proves that their client was coerced by the police or investigators into making the confession we took to be an exclusive…..

Or suppose the suspects whose ‘confessions’ we rush to air later recant the said confessions, and are later declared innocent by a judge or magistrate.

Suppose some good lawyer turns the tables against our exclusive stories about their client’s supposed ‘murder confession’ and convinces a magistrate or judge that the media tried and convicted his or her client outside the court, how would our ‘exclusive’ have served the cause of justice for the accused or families of the murder victims?

Until our source has been convicted by a court of law and thereafter offers  to give the media an exclusive on how and why they committed a murder, we  are treading on extremely dangerous grounds when we rush to air ‘confessions of murder’ made to the police or some private investigator.

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