Investigation and pressing charges

When a crime is committed, there is a certain period when the criminal justice authorities perform an investigation. They gather evidence, perform forensic examinations and question people to reconstruct the sequence and details of the events and understand the motives and consequences of the crime. When the authorities gather sufficient information to accuse a person, they press charges.

When the media reports about a crime, journalists may seek subsequent updates on the progress of the investigation or may wish to publish a bigger story with more details about the crime and the investigation. Although, as a rule, the pre-trial phase is closed to the public, some information can be released if this serves the public interest. 

The leading principles that both authorities and media should follow are observing the presumption of innocence, protecting private life, and avoiding sharing information that might bias the public towards the alleged perpetrators or any communities or groups they might belong to.

What to disclose at the investigation stage

It is a matter of a case-by-case decision if and what official information should be released on an ongoing investigation. Media relations officers should be consulted in addition to applicable national rules.

You can proactively release updates on ongoing investigations in line with the applicable national rules respecting the secrecy of the pre-trial phase. The released information should be presented observing several principles that do not allow for the public or the media to disproportionately invade the accused person’s private life, make moral judgements that can eventually violate the presumption of innocence, and, later on, affect the court’s decision. Your office has probably designated a person to communicate with the media – consult them as often as you have specific doubts. Consult also, as often as possible, other bodies that might comment on the same case. Never forget to consider the victims’ wishes when deciding what and how to disclose.

Admissible information to disclose is the type of offence, the date the police were informed about it, which body is responsible for the investigation, have there been any arrests, have the arrested people been detained under custody or released under bail. It is important that with the progress of the investigation you review the released information and assess its relevance. 

As in previous stages, off-the-record conversations should be avoided or, if impossible, always mind that your words might be cited. It is advisable when speaking unofficially to speak as if you are not off the record.

Images and videos

Authorities can disseminate images of items or scenes related to the crime. Officers can be seen on pictures but other persons’ images are considered personal information.

It is admissible that the authorities release images of seized items, objects used for committing the crime, valuables which are subject of crime, or items used by the police during the investigation. Images of police officials are also admissible. The images should not, however, show other people regardless of if they are related to the crime or not unless they have explicitly consented.

The photographs published by the Spanish police of the seized items and valuables could be considered admissible. The picture of the two suspects handcuffed should however have been avoided. The photos of the arrested and handcuffed men may project a humiliating and disgraceful image of them and give the impression of guilt. The rest of the disseminated photos related to the crime, may further strengthen this perception if displayed as a unit along with the pictures of the suspects.

Spanish police release footage of British men arrested

The article displays pictures disseminated by the Spanish police showing seized items and valuables subject to crime as well as a full body photo of the two handcuffed men arrested, although their faces have been blurred.

Discussion of crime versions

It is not recommended that you discuss work versions publicly because this might cause harm to both the investigation and involved people’s personal lives.

In cases of high interest, media would likely insist investigators to share more about what versions they work on by interviewing them on crime scenes or in studios later on. You should carefully consider whether to elaborate on work versions as they usually contain a great deal of assumptions and might send media to cover side leads and expose lives of people who can prove not to be related to the particular case.

In many countries the sub judice rule is applied. This is a rule that limits comment and disclosure relating to judicial proceedings, in order not to prejudge the issue or influence the jury.

You can, by identifying the need of it, send written clarifications or additional information to the media without allowing it’s being published. Such information might serve to add context to a press statement or to explain sensitive issues. Such an approach can be a good means of cooperation between authorities and the media. 

It is a good practice for authorities to keep record of their contacts with media representatives, including the unofficial ones.

Two people are under suspicion by the police – They knew Axel

The artist Axel was shot to death in Gothenburg and no one has been arrested yet. But according to information shared with Aftonbladet, the police is currently working on the basis of several theories – one of them consists of charting two persons who stood close to the rapper.

The article indicates that sources within the investigation have shared information regarding potential suspects according to one of the investigation tracks. This should be avoided since it may harm the investigation, as well as expose the lives of the two persons who may prove not to be related to the crime.

Covering police operations

Criminal justice authorities’ management and media relation experts should carefully consider all the aspects of allowing or not media to cover special police operations.

The media might ask to accompany the police or special forces to pre-announced operations shooting footage and interviewing officers. Your department’s management should carefully weigh the benefits of such publicity (such as transparency and higher trust in criminal justice authorities) to possible complications (exposing journalists to danger, interfering in the private lives of random people accidentally present at the scene of the operation, or providing exclusivity to one media).

Release a name

Your national legislation might allow for releasing a name upon pressing charges on any case or just on cases of public interest.

When pressing charges, you may be able to release the name of the accused persons for committing a certain crime such as a serious violent crime, crime involving public disturbance or environmental crime. Such announcement should not refer to the accused person as being guilty nor comments should be made in this sense. If you press charges to a child, you should not announce information that would allow for their identification, including school or living area.

If a crime has already been reported in the media, it is generally advisable that your department should proactively release information about pressing charges. 

When dealing with high-profile cases involving famous people, terrorist acts or serious incidents, your department should consider developing a deliberate media strategy for handling the release of information in each particular case. This strategy should be tailored according to the individual circumstances.

Managing information online

Criminal justice officials publish online content by running institutional and
private social media profiles. They should sustain a balance between their official and private capacity.

Many police departments use social media and news sections at their websites to inform the communities about their work. Despite the looser regulations on online content in some countries, be mindful that the media consider institutional websites and social media profiles as official sources of information and therefore they should fully comply with the professional standards and ethical principles. 

No matter how tempting it might be, you should avoid posting information on cases you work on or commenting on them in your private social media profiles or blogs, at least as long as the case is not closed. Ideally, private social media profiles should not refer to your workplace or position. Otherwise, the public may identify your personal opinion with your institution.


In Germany, some police officers gained popularity as InstaCops, Instagram influencers who also run blogs and podcasts where they share thoughts about their daily life both in personal terms and as law enforcement officials. These cases raised discussion about to what extent, even without posting or speaking about their work, declaring to be police officers and posting pictures in uniforms could make it hard for followers to distinguish between official statements and personal reflections of their work, bearing in mind that they are also involved in advertising. At the same time, the popularity of these profiles has many positive effects on the image of the police. 

Nevertheless, mixing private and professional life has many consequences, some of them hard to predict. For example, the easily identifiable InstaCops can hardly take part in undercover operations. 

There are diverse rules regarding the social media presence of law enforcement officials. Some departments offer no limitations at all, while others do not allow for their officers to post photos wearing uniforms in their personal accounts. Some departments require photos for personal profiles of officers to be reviewed by their media relations officials.

To media

When publishing updates on the investigation of a crime, you do not generally have access to the files and authorities would not normally be allowed to say much.

Limited access to official data

Within the pre-trial phase, you will most probably have no access to documents related to the case. You may, however, obtain such documents from other than official sources like the suspected people themselves, their lawyers, related ones or other witnesses. When deciding to publish or cite them, make sure the information you present contributes to a public debate or is important to explain the case. You should not publish such information as a background to contextualise your story as it might prejudice the public and the authorities towards believing one is innocent or guilty.

The article exposes classified information from the preliminary autopsy statement as well as testimonies made by witnesses. The presented information may prejudice the public towards believing in the guilt of the suspects by using expressions such as “allowed witnesses to see who handed out the fatal kick” as well as by linking the revelations from the autopsy report to the testimonies of the witnesses.

New evidence against the trio who assaulted Kevin

Yesterday, the three 16-year-olds were remanded in custody. The police have questioned almost 150 witnesses from the fatal assault on Östermalm. A large number of them now point out the three detained 16-year-olds as guilty of the brutal assault two weeks ago. Several of the testimonies are very strong. The boys’ distinct clothing items have allowed witnesses to see who handed out the fatal kick to 16-year-old Kevin.

– It is about certain specific details on shirts and such, says a source.

Even the preliminary autopsy statement, which Expressen could reveal last week, stated that Kevin died from blunt violence to the head. Today it is quite clear that he died from external blunt violence to the head caused by several kicks. In addition, the 16-year-old received kicks to the neck and forehead.

The interrogation of witnesses has strengthened the suspicions against the 16-year-old who was previously pointed out as the main suspect. Witnesses call him the “leader” – the one who kicks the most during the beating.

Alternative sources

You will, however, be able to access other sources as publicly available information on websites or in social media. You can also interview witnesses or other actors willing to talk. When reporting, it is essential that you distinguish between facts that are indisputable and personal reflections which might, due to distress or other subjective reasons, be inaccurate or contradicting. The latter should be attributed to avoid presenting them as objective truth.

It is your responsibility what you publish, therefore, in addition to what media regulations and ethics rules say, it is advisable that you check with the investigative authorities if the information you plan to release would not compromise their work or allow for a biased interpretation that implies guilt.

Leaked evidence or CCTV footage is a source of primary information that you should carefully consider publishing. Even if you decide to use any of these, you should make sure no persons are identifiable, no vulnerable persons can be seen and there is no disturbing content. If it is about leaked documents, in addition to avoid identification, check with the national data protection requirements and delete all personal or protected data, if available, before publishing.

Hidden cameras

Investigative journalists are allowed to use hidden cameras to record interviews with non-public figures only under certain conditions. Using hidden cameras is allowed when a) the matter contributes to the public debate, b) the reporting does not focus on the person personally but on one of his or her professional aspects, c) the person’s face and voice is disguised and d) the interview is not conducted at usual business premises.

Source: Guidelines on Safeguarding Privacy in the Media

The father in Biskomsgården – designated for murder in the press but written off in court

It has been two weeks since three children and their mother died in Biskopsgården in Gothenburg. The day before the father of the family was arrested as a probable suspect in case, GT published an interview with an anonymous friend who speculated that the man could be guilty of the crime. The father was later released because, according to the prosecutor, there was no longer any evidence that he had committed the act.

The paper decided to publish the personal reflections by a supposed friend of a, subsequently, temporarily suspected man. The reflections poignantly imply guilt and the labeling of a source as a friend may add stronger credibility to the testimony.

Respect for private life

An ethical principle is that you should refrain from publishing a name even after charges are pressed unless you intend to cover the case all along to its outcome.

Accused people also have the right to private life and generally personal details should not be published unless the affected person has given their consent to do so. (Sometimes suspected or accused persons and their lawyers decide it is in their benefit to disclose personal details to support their view of what has happened.)

The media do not normally mention names of the accused people who have allegedly committed minor crimes or misdemeanours as traces of such information continue to exist beyond the term of its relevance and might negatively affect their later life.

The article discloses information, provided by a supposed friend, which may be regarded highly personal. This type of personal information could contribute to a reduced credibility of the suspect, as well as prejudice the readers regarding their guilt.

The suspected 22-year old’s friends: He wanted to go back to Afghanistan

The friend claims that the 22-year-old was kind but that he could sometimes get very angry, and that he had recently felt mentally unwell. He also describes an episode when he and another friend went home to the 22-year-old the same week as the act of violence took place. Then the suspected perpetrator was said to have behaved nervously and claimed that the social services observed him inside the apartment.