As mentioned above, internationally recognised ethical standards condemn unfounded public accusations brought about by media professionals. Nevertheless, it was observed that journalists following the case of the murder of Antonino Barbaro did not fulfil their duty to report objective information to the public and made accusations grounded on unconfirmed evidence. Basically, the press acted as a public court with prejudiced headlines such as “Francofonte, they killed a 67-year-old man with 27 stab wounds for 700 euro: Carabinieri arrest the perpetrators of the murder” published a day after the arrest was broadcasted live. In the absence of official information by the authorities, it is difficult to presume that the public had any room for doubt left regarding the suspects’ guilt. More articles with similar accusatory tone were published prior to the court’s final decision, which eventually acquitted the implicated brothers. The analysis on the case stresses the accusive attitude towards the them demonstrated in an episode of a popular TV show presenting a report on the criminal case two days after the arrest. The host narrated the story of the murder around the hypothesis that an old, simple person was killed for €700 of unpaid rents by his landlords (the arrested brothers). The report also included an interview with the defendants made shortly before their arrest. During the interview, the journalist had a confrontational attitude and referred to rumours that the brothers had beaten other tenants, thus indirectly presenting the suspects as violent and unscrupulous.
In contrast, an example of ethical media coverage on criminal proceedings was found in “the Herd” case. Until the publication of the sentence, the media referred to the perpetrators as “alleged”, or as being “accused of rape”.
The Council of Europe Resolution on Ethics of Journalism prescribes the principle of a clear distinction between news and opinions. On the one hand, news is information about actual facts and data supported by appropriate means of verification and proof. On the other hand, opinions convey thoughts, ideas, beliefs or value judgments on the part of media companies or journalists. Ethical journalism should allow audiences to easily distinguish with certainty news publications from articles expressing the subjective opinion of the author. Media coverage on criminal cases should rely primarily on facts and official information. Expression of subjective beliefs or judgements regarding the culpability of the defendant is inappropriate, as media practitioners are not authorised by law to determine a person’s verdict. Article 10 of the Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists lays down the basic principle that distortion of facts along with slander, libel, defamation and unfounded accusations are considered serious professional misconduct. The SPJ Code of Ethics specifically states that ethical journalism should consider the implications of identifying suspects before they face legal charges as well as the long-term impact of publications.
Case studies revealed that suspects and accused persons are frequently presented in a negative way since the moment of their arrest, and become subject to defamation and accusations in the press. An example can be seen in the Professor “Fakelakis” case where the suspect was defamed and mocked by the media from the very first day when students submitted a complaint against him to the Ombudsman. The media immediately created an offensive nickname and addressed him as professor “Fakelakis” in all related articles (in Greek fakelaki means “a small envelope” in which money offered as a bribe are usually put). The media aroused public expectations for rapid sanctions, thus creating an extremely unfavorable situation for the defendant. It is noteworthy that his pre-trial detention lasted for 10 months and he was dismissed for good from his academic duties despite the fact that the trial was still pending. Obviously, the humiliating factors and unethical media coverage of the case had an adverse effect on his personal and professional life, his trial as well as the life of his family members.
Pursuing a powerful story, some journalists rely on strong and insulting language to describe the suspect and accused people. The use of derogatory language increases the perception of guilt attributed to the addressee and may be an act of defamation. For example, an article headline about the Sotirya murder case read: “The freak from Sotirya, who raped and killed little Christine, whines in a complaint to the court”, and the article itself contained offensive labels like “monster” and “freak” stuck to the suspect. These words appeared repeadetly in various media publications. A tabloid online media used the strongest qualification in reference to the accused – “the cruel murderer” and “the perverted Roma” – when informing about his struggle to find a lawyer. The media also posted unverified information about the accused of the Sotirya murder case, disseminating unproven claims of fellow villagers that he had often committed rapes and robberies. These claims were based on rumors and the village mayor said in an interview that no one ever filed an official complaint to the police. Additionally, some media publications noted that under unofficial sources the accused had been sexually harassed in the Burgas prison, while serving his previous sentence – a conjecture that was neither linked to the current prosecution, nor confirmed by official sources.
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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