Reporting information about criminal cases is essential for maintaining transparent and trustworthy criminal justice systems. Two major groups of stakeholders are engaged with informing the public about the delivery of justice in a country – public authorities as police officers, public prosecutors, and judges on the one hand, and media professionals on the other.
The communication of information about criminal proceedings is vital and is related to several fundamental rights. First, the public has the right to receive information about the activities of judicial authorities and the police while the media holds a mediator role between the institutions and the society. Second, those involved in criminal proceedings have the right to defence, which, in the case of suspects and accused persons, includes the right to a fair trial and to a presumption of innocence, as well as the right to privacy. The upholding of these rights requires an approach ensuring that everyone’s interests are respected. In practice, this is a delicate balance that is difficult to achieve and easy to disturb.
In the context of criminal justice, among the thousands of criminal offences occurring daily, some cases attract significantly higher public attention. For such cases, the proceedings are accompanied by intense reporting to the public. The extensive media coverage on criminal proceedings contributes to the public’s access to information. But it may also lead to various infringements of the rights of the suspects and the accused. Violations are caused by publishing premature judgements, interference in private life, defamation, degrading content, etc. Intensive coverage practically threatens the right to a fair trial disbalancing the equality of parties before the court. Furthermore, the right to information and the right to privacy often contradict one another and finding the right equilibrium is challenging not only to the media but to the public authorities too.
An explicit and overarching regulatory framework is necessary to prevent and mitigate the negative impact of unrestricted publicity on the fairness of a criminal process. Although international law lacks universal rules on the provision of information regarding criminal cases, there are multiple legal and soft law instruments with an international scope that tackle this issue. The relevant instruments to be consulted include recommendations by the Council of Europe, EU law, the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, journalists’ codes of ethics, and academic publications.
This Guidebook presents a set of standards for disclosure and publication of crime-related information. It contains a cutting-edge compendium of recommendations based on the existing body of literature, national and international legislation, legal principles, case law and good practices. It also reflects the findings of the research conducted under the ARISA project, which shed light on the relevant national legislation in four Member States; identified common malpractices through analysis of case studies, and made a state-of-art review on the applicable ethical and legal norms. In addition, the Guidebook attempts to provide guidance on issues that are not sufficiently and thoroughly covered by the EU and national criminal justice, media and data protection rules and codes of ethics. The recommended standards are accompanied by illustrative examples of real publications. They have been dully anonymised in terms of personal data, location, public bodies, and names of media outlets.
The structure follows the usual stages of a criminal process. The standards are categorised by the two main types of stakeholders: authorities and media. Both of them have the responsibility to inform society about the criminal justice developments, but as their role differs, so do the standards for appropriate behaviour to each of them. The authorities are the source of official information and the main actor responsible for safeguarding the rights of suspects and accused persons, including but not limited to the presumption of their innocence before the final court ruling. The media are responsible for exercising the freedom of speech and the right to information with the highest ethical standards. That involves differentiating facts from opinions, verifying information before publishing, and other elements that ensure the proper observation and respect of the rights of suspects and accused persons.