Home Introduction to journalism JOURNALISM/MEDIA LAWS- CONTEMPT OF COURT


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With court reporting, it can be a matter of your career swimming with each report. But sometimes it is not just your career that sinking or may be at stake. It can also be your very freedom. There is a body of law called law of contempt. If you infringe it in the magistrate’s court you can find yourself in jail that very day. It is therefore extremely important that you read very carefully the references on contempt I am about to give you. This is because one day, when you are sitting in standing in the dole queue, you may just regret the fact that you did not jail, or complete the required reading. The recommended reading on contempt of court is in the next input in this unit.


On successful completion of this unit, you should able to:

  1. Define what contempt of court is.
  2. Identify the broad types of contempt of court. 
  3.  List the criteria for reporting summary trials from the court. 


3.1 Contempt Of Court: What It Entails

Contempt is the law that concerns people who disrupt legal proceedings, insult judges, disobey court orders, publish written or broadcast material which may interfere with the outcome of a trial, or – controversially – try to undermine public confidence in the judicial most system. The enforcement of the law of contempt involves the delicate balancing of two fundamental social values:

  1.  the right of free speech and a free press, against 
  2.  the right of individuals to a fair trial. 

3.2 Types of Contempt

There are three types of contempt which are of direct concern to the working journalist. They are:

  1.  Publication of words that tend to “pollute the stream of justice”, such as:Revealing details of a crime which might influence a potential jury after an arrest has been made.- Revealing the accused person’s previous convictions or outlining his or her confession.- Publishing a photograph or likeness of the accused if identification may be an issue in the trial. In criminal trials, in particular, identification is more often an issue than not.- Publishing reports on proceedings in closed courts or where restrictions on publishing apply.
  2.  Scandalising the courts. This arises if your newspaper unfairly criticises the courts or the judicial process in a way which might undermine the public’s faith in the administration of justice. This is a vague area of law, with a varied case history. It is vague because judges disagree on what constitutes fair criticism. It should not concern the novice journalist unless he or she is asked to write an editorial on the miscarriage of justice in a certain case, or unless he wishes to expose the fraudulent activities of a judge or magistrate. In any such case, where the courts run even the slightest risk of being offended by your words, you are strongly urged to seek legal advice on the firmness of your ground. If you proceed without such advice and you are found guilty of contempt you may well find yourself behind bars. 
  3. By far the most important form of contempt you may face at this stage of your career is contempt in the face of the court, because this concerns your behaviour when in court preparing stories for submission in your court assignments.In a nutshell, to err on the side of safety, your behaviour in court should be impeccable. People have been fined and jailed for anything short of the most polite, respectful behaviour. Some examples of things which have been found to be contempt in the face of the court are:
  4. Smoking, and rolling a cigarette in preparation for smoking.
  5. Sketching or photographing the judge or any people or scenes in the courtroom without the permission of the court.
  6. Reading a newspaper (since people in a court are supposed to give their whole attention to the proceedings, yes, even during the boring bits).
  7.  Making any sort of noise or disturbance, (I’ll leave that up to your imaginations), interjecting, interrupting.
  8. Walking into or out of the court in anything but the most unobtrusive fashion.
  9. Being improperly dressed. (In other words, do not cover courts in your thongs and body hugs). 
  10. Using disrespectful language or a disrespectful tone when addressing the court or when giving evidence. 
  11. Throwing an egg or stone at the judge. I’m sure you will certainly not attempt to do that, but here are other examples of obviously contemptuous behaviour. 

– In 1773 a man of “ferocious and terrible disposition” was prosecuted for contempt because he forced a clerk to eat court’s subpoena. the
– In 1900 a newspaper description of an English judge as “the impudent little man in horsehair, a microcosm of conceit and empty headedness” was held in contempt.
– In 1974 a solicitor’s clerk described the judge as a “humourless automaton”. But he could not be dealt with for contempt because he had already just been sentenced for the same offence for releasing laughing gas into the air conditioning system of the court.

Finally, on courtroom behaviour, some word on etiquette. You will probably never be called upon to address a magistrate or judge. If you must, however, refer to the magistrate as “Your worship” and to the judge as “Your Honour”. Always bow (a significant nod of the head constitutes a bow these days) as a mark of respect to the bench (not necessarily to the judge or magistrate) when entering or leaving the courtroom while in session, and always stand when the magistrate enters or leaves the room.

Briefly, though, it means you cannot comment on a case while a trial or an appeal is pending. All you may publish is a strictly factual account of public steps taken publicly in the litigation. You can report the arrest, but it may be defamatory to give names at this point. In this area, examples of contempt’s have been:

• Publication before a hearing of pleadings, interrogations, answers, or evidence.
• Advertising for witnesses on behalf of a party
• Publication of portraits of parties where identification may become an issue.
• Comments suggesting one party is in the right, whether original or quoted from another source.
• Accounts of police or investigative reporter’s investigations, theories, etc., suggesting the accused is guilty or even innocent.

• Prejudging a trial by a newspaper which will interfere with or obstruct the fair administration of justice is referred to as facie curiae. The contempt of court committed here are dealt with summarily by the court i.e. the contemnor need not take any plea nor be put in the witness box for his defence and cross-examination.

• Disobeying the lawful order, decree, injunction etc. of the court that made an order is referred to as contempt ex fasciae. Here, contemnor is allowed to take plea to a charge preferred against him.

the It is not a contempt to publish a factual, straight account of the pursuit and arrest of an accused person, unless something suggests in the story that he is guilty or innocent. Even material seen as being in the public interest in helping police has been found in contempt.

Self Assessment Exercise 1.1

  1.  What are the types of contempt you know? 
  2. Without referring to this unit, list the major points that reflect the checklist for reporting summary trials.

3.3 Check List for Reporting Summary Trials

The writer should always read through copy of court reports at least twice before handing them to the editor to check that the following are included.

  1.  Exact identification and titles of: (a) the defendants and their representative if applicable (b) the magistrates (c) the prosecutors (d) the places and days where the proceeding occurred (e) the witnesses 
  2.  The defendants pleas-guilty or not guilty.
  3.  The charges. These can be paraphrased, but must be accurate. 
  4. The results of the proceedings – dismissal, adjournment, or sentence. 
  5. If there was more than one charge, do the fines, jail terms or community service orders, on each charge add up to the totals you have reported. 


The study of media laws is a must for all would-be journalists in order to avoid infringement.


 In this unit, you would readily agree that you have learnt the following;

  1.  That knowledge of the principles guiding the operation of law of contempts is a sine = qua – non for reporter/journalist. 
  2. That contempt of court results when a person disrupts legal proceedings, insults the judge, disobeys court orders, publish written or broadcast material that interferes with the outcome of a trial.
  3. That three types of contempt have strong bearings with journalistic practice. They are (1) publication of matters that “pollute the stream of justice” (2) scandalize the courts and (3) contempt committed in the face of the court. 
  4.  That factual straight account of proceedings in the court is not a drive towards contempt unless the facts upon which the reports are based are not exact and do not originate from the recorded accounts of the court records. 


 Attend a court session of not less than a Magistrate Court of justice. Record your observations of the proceedings and reconcile them with the points contained in this unit.


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