Why Court Sessions make News

Proceedings in the Kisumu High Court, April 2018

People like to hear and read about conflict. It’s always about one person against another: husband against wife, president against opposition leader, tenant against landlord, revenue authority versus taxpayer, neighbour against neighbour, employee versus employer, gang A against gang B, police against suspect, etc.
There are a myriad causes and characteristics of conflict, and many end up in court. Just look at the cause lists on kenyalaw.org (ext. link). A conflict will always be present in a court case – even if the proceedings remain orderly and quiet and do not entail shouting, an attack by the convicted against the magistrate like in a 2016 Nakuru case (ext. link),or even a suicide in the courtroom like the one of a Bosnian war criminal suspect at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in November 2017 (ext. link).

News Values

To say it in the internationally accepted language of journalism: Conflict is one of the major news values that make an event newsworthy. Thus, it is hard to understand why many media neglect this and leave serious court stories. It’s just a few cases that pop up in the media –and in most cases they are the ones followed by every other reporter. But reporters who incorporate court reporting in their everyday routine and dig out cases of public interest will have a lead ahead of others.

Negativity

Like it or not, the second news value besides conflict you find in the courts is negativity. It does not constitute news when everything is running smoothly. (Exception: where everybody expects “bad news” only, the good ones can make it into the media). In court cases there is a probability of blood having been shed, lives or property lost – these are definitely negative aspects of life. “When it bleeds it leads” so do we say in that age-old cliché known well in media circles. But there also is a positive element. The court as a neutral arbiter attempts to arrive at an agreement towards a certain issue, a wise verdict according to the laws – a positive step into the future.

If your media owner or editor-in-charge just shrugs shoulders about extended court reporting in his turf, let’s convince him or her with the other news values.

Relevance

There are cases that affect the lives of many or are of a fundamental importance for society. The county’s plans for building a road challenged in court? Herdsmen against farmers about a land case? Let’s dig them out.

‘Bigness’ (or Impact)

A company being sued for remedies of billions of Shillings? A gang leader being taken to court over lives lost during a conflict he presided over? All these are major issues with major repercussions. Let’s cover them.

Proximity

Your court in your city handles cases from the neighbourhood whose proceedings your audience will be interested to know.

Well-known Names / Prominence

The VIP suing another VIP? The well-known hotel in your city sued by the revenue authority? Find out and include it in your reporting.

Human and social Interest

Daughter of a deceased suing her brothers in a succession case? You will want to know the details if you are in a family – and all of us are. And you want it even more if you are interested in (women’s) land rights.

Oddity / Bizarreness

A man being brought to court for committing an unnatural act with a goat? Check.

Sexuality

Suspects being brought to court for undressing a woman they ‘felt’ is inappropriately dressed? This is a big story.

Timeliness

Well, all court cases are contemporary because the conflict is happening NOW. But it is your task find the best news in them, because they are too many.

Currency

The time for court cases will always be there, even if they are old. You can dig them out. Like one case in which a prison inmate who was sentenced to death for burglary a dozen years ago and has since been on the death row at a Homa Bay prison. But he now sues the State because he says that the verdict is unconstitutional, at least according to the new constitution. (CONST.PET. 12/17 EDWIN MAKUNDA OUTA VRS D.P.P at Kisumu High Court) Look the file up in the registry if you want to cover the case – it will be mentioned on May 24, 2018, according to the cause list on kenyalaw.org.

As you can see court cases are full of all elements that can make an event worth following.
We at RoGGKenya.org will support our fellow journalists with a series of hands-on articles on court reporting in the weeks to come.

by Kioko Kivandi