Mass media confusion resulted when Mohammed Shamji came to bail court.

By Kathy English for the Toronto Star

Unsurprisingly, some readers were confused last weekend when they read the Star’s report of the first court appearance of neurosurgeon Mohammed Shamji, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji.

“Is there not a publication ban preventing media from identifying the victim?” one reader emailed. “Other news outlets are not reporting the victim’s name due to a court-ordered publication ban,” said another.

In fact, there never was any publication ban on reporting the name of the victim, nor of the accused.

But it’s also a fact that the Star decided to publish the names without certainty that there was no court-imposed ban on the name of the victim, the accused or, possibly, both. Given the Star’s longstanding policy that court-imposed publication bans be honoured, this was a highly considered judgment call based on the best available facts at that time and advice from our lawyers.

It wasn’t until two days after we had published information other media had reported as banned that the Star learned with all certainty that there was never any ban imposed on publication of the two names. .

What happened can best be described as ludicrous, even comical. Except it concerns serious matters regarding confusion in the courtroom and the challenges for journalists in reporting with clarity on court proceedings. It makes clear that journalists need better understanding of the law and publication bans, but also underscores the reality of a public court system that does little to help the media report accurately.

The confusion began early Saturday when Shamji, 40, made his first court appearance for a bail hearing. At that time, the defence counsel sought a ban on publication of the proceedings, a common occurrence in bail hearings that does not — and, in the interests of Canada’s open courts principle, generally should not — usually include a publication ban on the names of the accused and victim. At the same time, the Crown attorney sought an order to prevent publication of the names of two possible witnesses.

Justice of the Peace Odida Quamina granted both requests. But it was difficult to hear him and reporters in the courtroom, including the Star’s Kenyon Wallace, became confused about what exactly the bans covered. Wallace asked the Crown attorney for clarification. She referenced the two Criminal Code sections involved and advised him to contact the Ontario Attorney General’s media services office.

Wallace had previously turned to a court clerk for guidance. The clerk told him the ban covered publication of the names of all involved — the victim, the accused and any possible witnesses.

Certainly such a ban would be absurd in this case given that Toronto Police had released the name of the woman and her accused husband the day before and they had been widely circulated in the media. But such absurdity is not unheard of in our courts and the Star has grown increasingly concerned when extraordinary bans that keep the media from reporting key facts about criminal proceedings are declared without reason or explanation.

Continue reading this story on the Toronto Star website, where it was first published.