The duty of journalists to ensure that the dissemination of information or opinion does not contribute to hatred or prejudice in society and does not facilitate the spread of discrimination on any ground is enshrined in the Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists. Considering the media’s power to shape public opinion, the information in substance, and the manner of its delivery is able to provoke strong reactions that may turn into social unrest. It is able to design and alter social perceptions of guilt and innocence. In turn, an emotionally generated social environment may affect the execution of a fair and impartial legal process. The incitement of hatred and prejudice regarding one’s guilt during ongoing criminal proceedings should be avoided by all media practitioners. The case studies indicated that hate speech and pre-judgments in the media occur more frequently when the defendant belongs to a certain vulnerable or minority group that is traditionally subject to stereotypes and marginalisation.
The feature that the cases of the murder of Manolis Kantaris at Athens city center and the murder of Pamela Mastropietro have in common is that the defendants were non-nationals. A similar misconduct by media practitioners is observed in Greece and Italy, who refer to suspects or accused by their nationality drawing a division line between “us, the nationals, the victims” and the “others, foreigners, the perpetrators”. Given the cruelty of the crime of the murder of Pamela Mastropietro (victim's body dismemberment), and the defendant’s belonging to a marginalised group (an immigrant from Nigeria), space was opened up for creating various speculations and eccentric claims disseminated by the media. A wide variety of theories were put forward, ranging from Oseghale’s (defendant) membership in cults dedicated to voodoo rituals to describing these supposed rituals in detail, e.g. Oseghale eating the victim’s heart. The analysis pointed out that this generated daily and close public attention to the case, becoming a downright example of creating moral panic. Moral panic is a condition or event in which a person or group of people becomes identified as a threat to society’s values and interests, which is particulatly problematic when one’s culpability is yet to be judged by a court of law. No proof or supporting evidence for these excessive claims were provided in media publications, but the sensational language sufficed to influence the perceptions of the wider public, stirring up xenophobic feelings. Moreover, it affected the investigation, as the periodic and uninterrupted emergence of hypotheses of voodoo rites and cannibalism led investigators to produce fast denials. The prejudiced conjectures, highly suggestive to the reader, were continually reiterated in the period before the final passing of a verdict of guilty. In addition to his immigrant status, the media repeadetly linked the defendant with accusations of drug dealing, rape and murder, again at the pre-trial stage. In a broader context, the case was tried while the issue of immigration had been the main topic in the political debate of the time. The media coverage on the case enhanced the stereotypical representation of immigrants as criminals and contributed to a hateful attitude and exclusion of the social group altogether.
In Greece, another country where immigration is a persisting and controversial problem, the foreign nationality of the three accused persons for the murder of Manolis Kantaris at Athens city center was stressed in multiple news pieces about the case. They were referred to as “the Afghans” and “the murderers” from the very beginning of the criminal proceedings, thus reinforcing stereotypes about crime and ethnicity as well as negative perceptions and emotions about foreign nationals coming to Greece. The media “investigation” of the crime left no doubt as to who were the perpetrators, supported with incriminating references on their lifestyle involving alcohol and drug use, previous time in prison and apprehension for drug dealing. The implications on the local community were illustrated by the memorial march organised by inhabitants of the neighbourhood where the crime was committed. The assembly aimed at protesting against the high crime rate in the district and the insecurity and fear this provoked. A prominent argument of protesters was that the rise of criminality was due to the increasing number of foreign nationals living in the area. The political context should also be noted here. The murder coincided with the emergence of an extreme right political formation in the country with a strong presence in Athens. The political formation propagated fascist ideas and had a major role in organizing protests and in keeping the aggressive rhetoric against foreign nationals at the forefront. The murder of Manolis Kantaris was one of the factors that led to the organisation of far-right raids where more than 100 foreign nationals were injured and a 21-year-old Bangladeshi was killed.
Given its social role and ability to influence the public opinion, ethical media are expected to fulfill their duties in a responsible and cautious manner when reporting information about the investigation and persons involved as suspects or accused of a crime. The media should also bear in mind the negative consequences on the social order and issues that may arise as a result of amplified intolerance. For instance, it can result in increased hate speech and hate crimes motivated by prejudice towards minority groups, creating obstacles to their social inclusion and peaceful co-existence. In this regard, the Council of Europe Resolution argued that “the media must play a major role in preventing tension and must encourage mutual understanding, tolerance and trust between the various communities”.
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a series of projects striving to promote the rights of suspects, accused and convicted persons in the European Union.
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