Pleased today to welcome a contribution from Jonathan Peters, an associate professor who has faculty appointments in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Law here at the University of Georgia. Professor Peters teaches and researches in the area of media law and policy, and his post here discusses his participation December 3 in an online training event hosted in Uzbekistan.
I was delighted recently to deliver two virtual presentations to court personnel and journalists in Uzbekistan, as part of a project facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme and supported by the United States Agency for International Development and the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
The purpose of the project, called the “Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan,” is to strengthen public access to the nation’s judicial system as well as public trust in it. One related priority has been to improve citizen knowledge of the courts and to encourage collaboration between court personnel and journalists. This has enabled the local media to tour Uzbekistan’s regional courts and to learn about international practices in court-journalist relations.
To those ends, I delivered presentations to a group of journalists and court personnel, including members of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan, on U.S. rights of access to courts and how American journalists cover legal issues. First, I discussed the tension between the First and Sixth Amendments and the various reasons that U.S. courts have generally protected media rights of access to judicial proceedings and records.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has observed repeatedly the historical importance of public trials and has reasoned that openness improves a trial’s functioning, that it has therapeutic value by “providing an outlet for community concern, hostility and emotion,” and that it enhances the public’s acceptance that justice is being done.
Moreover, in significant part, American journalists exercise their First Amendment rights as surrogates of the public when reporting on courts. As Justice Lewis F. Powell put it in Saxbe v. Washington Post Co., in his dissent: “For most citizens, the prospect of personal familiarity with newsworthy events is hopelessly unrealistic. In seeking out the news, the press therefore acts as an agent of the public at large. It is the means by which the people receive the … information and ideas essential to intelligent self-government.”
Then, in my second presentation, on how American journalists cover legal issues, I explored how the rule of law is preserved partly by public knowledge of court decisions and activities, and thus the media is a critical link between the judiciary and the public. So it is democratically important for journalists to explain what courts are doing and why—and to convey the implications (if any) for the public.
That means the journalists must be able to translate legal terms and concepts for a lay audience, and they must be able to distill into a short news story a complex legal action. It is also helpful for them to develop sources in the court system, while appreciating and respecting the ethical limits within which judges, lawyers, and court aides usually work.
After these remarks, the Q&A session opened up conversations among the journalists and court personnel in attendance, allowing us to have a dialogue on some of the issues most pressing for them. I hope the ultimate result is a more open judiciary and a freer press in Uzbekistan.