What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’?

(C)Daniel Butcher 2007
  • Anyone still care about the law?

There were serious doubts concerning several accusations of blasphemy, quite a strong sense that other, unrelated motives triggered the accusations. In the case of Sawan Masih and the Christian Joseph colony, Sawan denied he had made blasphemous statements. He said that a business concern had its eyes on the land occupied by the colony and they had triggered the events that led to the accusations.

After the accusations against Masih many of the houses in Joseph colony were burnt and the residents fled. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a serious matter that such allegations can be used to ‘settle personal scores’.

There is a Latin expression: Ei incumbet probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. It means that ‘the burden of proof is upon the one who declares, not upon one who denies.’ This is behind the principle that a person is considered innocent unless proven guilty. Most systems of law agree with this principle, including the Islamic. In fact under the Islamic concept of justice even casting suspicion on a person is highly condemned as per hadith documented by Imams Nawawi, Bukhari and Muslim. Hazrat Ali has also been cited as saying, ‘Avert the prescribed punishment by rejecting doubtful evidence’. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights also incorporates this principle as do civilian codes of law in many countries.

An accusation that defames an individual, group, organisation or an ideology is called ‘slander’ if verbal, or libel if written and used in media. In ancient England, slander was punished by cutting off the slanderer’s tongue. In modern times defamation is punishable in various ways prescribed by the code of many countries. Many celebrities including Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and Scarlett Johanssen have successfully sued in such cases.

So, although this equally applies to finger wagging rants against their opponents by politicians, in light of what has suddenly taken centre stage these days, what about allegations of sexual harassment?

  • For the media, which is responsible for bringing issues to light and carrying them around the world, there exists a code of ethics. Whether it is taken seriously is debatable

While it would be insane to doubt that sexual harassment occurs, and occurs very frequently indeed, could it not be that allegations of sexual harassment are also at times used to ‘settle personal scores’? It is certainly not out of the question. And if so, how should these be handled?

It is slander in itself to cast a general doubt on such accusations. In fact it would be very wrong, since very many of those accusations are founded in truth, and in fact women are being encouraged to speak up against such abuse. But what of the cases where there is no way to prove the accuser right?

There is almost no woman who has not undergone some form of sexual harassment, small or large. On the other hand it is equally true that men are vulnerable to sexual allegations, because they are so easy to make, so difficult to disprove, and so often true. Their mere presence can ruin a man, personally as well as professionally, and unless they possess a skin as thick as the POTUS, it spells the end of the accused’s credibility. It is all the more important, then, that such accusations should be verified.

There is no way to verify the truth of sexual accusations made years after the event, and some very public accusations were made decades after a supposed event. Unless these are verifiable, surely it is best in such cases for the accuser to stay away from the person she accuses and carry on maintaining the silence she has for so many years, unless the accused still has access to her.

Accusations by and against well-known persons include the public and the media, neither of whom are without certain obligations. The public is of course under various personal, societal and religious obligations.

For the media, which is responsible for bringing issues to light and carrying them around the world, there exists a code of ethics. Whether it is taken seriously is debatable.

I quote Wikipedia: ‘The Society of Professional Journalists created a code of ethics in use today. The main mantra of the code is to ‘seek truth and report it’.

The code says that journalists should: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”(Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport).

That journalists should show good taste, and avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” (Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport).

Which of these factors have been adhered to in reporting the sexual harassment allegations that sprouted so suddenly like mushrooms in the wake of the allegations against Weinstein?

What’s more, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which recently sent around a notice to all cell phones warning that ‘Uploading, downloading and sharing of any blasphemous content on the internet is a punishable offence under the law’, needs to understand that to accuse someone of blasphemy lays the accuser, including the state of Pakistan as represented by the PTA open to an accusation of slander, which is as serious an accusation as any other. Unless they can manage to prove their allegation, which in such cases has very often been impossible.

But no one seems to care about that.