Letter of the law


AS a rookie reporter jumping into the job at The Star more than 35 years ago, the first thing the news editor sent me out for was to cover the courts. I had to learn basic laws, he said.

I also had to be accurate in my reporting because there was nothing worse than being reprimanded by the magistrate or judge the next day in open court.

Everyone in the room, including the accused in the dock, would stare at you. And for the errant journalist, if that happens, he might prefer to be swallowed up by the ground.

But it also taught me to summarise cases, from a stack of court documents with all the legal jargon, into a simple and readable news report.

I learned the various levels of the court hierarchy and terms like charge sheet, case management, heard in camera, sub judice, ex parte, locus standi, habeas corpus, remand, letters of demand, and discharge not amounting to an acquittal, among others.

There were many lawyers who patiently listened to this young, exasperated reporter on the phone as he struggled with his copy in the newsroom.

My next beat was crime reporting, where I learned even more. Soon, all the stuff I found out from American TV series turned out to be useless because they were not applicable in our police stations.

My editor reminded me that while these people may have been arrested, they had yet to be charged. They could even be released eventually.

So, it was important that they were not named in my news reports.

But if it involved public figures and of public interest, exceptions would be made.

Also, we live in Malaysia, so we will not reveal the race of the culprit or the victim, particularly in rape or assault cases, although in police reports, race is still requisite data.

It was drummed into my heart (and head) that we should never start a racial riot, because that’s the last thing we need the newspaper to be accused of. Keep race out of it.

But here’s my point – more and more reporters entering the profession have now been exempted from these two important beats, court and crime, so they have missed out on important elements of newswriting.

That deficiency is more prevalent in news portals, where most reporters devote their entire coverage to political news. And like bees to honey, more untrained writers have surfaced in these portals.

Over the past week, an article made its rounds and was shared by many Malaysians, in which the writer questioned why Datuk Seri Najib Razak and other senior politicians have yet to be sent to jail.

The article went further, arguing that if one senior politician is sent to jail for corruption, his peers, including the Prime Minister, would be in deep trouble.

Claiming it was a case of “member jaga member”, it was implied that no one from Umno wants to start a precedent.

In our Malaysian legal system, which is based on the British model, a person has the right to appeal against his conviction until the Federal Court (the highest court) makes the final verdict.

So, Najib – or anyone else, including opposition politicians – won’t begin to serve his conviction by the High Court, for example, until he has exhausted his legal avenues.

Many have asked why Najib is still being given this privilege of walking around freely when he was found guilty in the SRC International trial last year. The case is now at the Court of Appeal.

However, many Umno leaders have gone to jail. They included former Selangor mentri besar Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo, who was stripped off his Datukship, and the late Datuk Mokhtar Hashim, who was youth and sports minister.

In 1976, former Selangor mentri besar Datuk Seri Harun Idris was also jailed for corruption.

At the Federal Court, no new evidence will be entertained, so lawyers and prosecutors will only argue on the points of the law.

And there’s no such thing as a surprise witness dramatically appearing with newfound evidence as the courtroom gasps in surprise, like in a Korean drama.

In the United States, the accused is immediately marched into prison while awaiting appeal, which can take a long time.

Closer to home, in the Philippines, the police even parade those they have arrested at press conferences before sending them to court, and in Thailand, suspects have to re-enact their actions, including murders, before the public and media.

There’s one more point: those on death row are not immediately executed.

Sometimes, it takes years and they still have a final appeal, where the Ruler of the state in which the crime was committed, can decide to pardon the convict.

Najib still gets to enjoy the services of a team of bodyguards and a police escort with sirens blaring because he remains a former PM. But one thing is certain – he can’t contest in the next general election.

The law says an individual fined more than RM2,000 or sentenced to more than a year’s jail, won’t be allowed to be an election candidate for federal seats, even if there are ongoing appeals because this law comes into effect immediately.

But as MP, Najib can still attend Parliament, apart from keeping himself busy as “Bosku” on social media, because the vacation of such a seat would only happen if the appeals have been exhausted and the conviction is upheld by the appellate courts.

Learning the ropes at the courthouse has helped me learn some basic laws.

I also learned that if you asked 10 lawyers for a certain interpretation of the law, you’ll get 10 different views, especially if they represent a client.

Try seeking an opinion now on who has the right to call for Parliament to reconvene during an Emergency.

It usually starts with “but I beg to differ”.
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