This Council of Europe Recommendation recognises the public’s right to receive information about the activities of judicial authorities and police services through the media. Such information should be provided on a non-discriminatory basis and, wherever possible, through press releases, press conferences by authorised officers or similar authorised means.
Moreover, in cases of criminal proceedings which continue for a long period, this information should be provided regularly, according to Principle 6 of the Council of Europe Recommendation on the provision of information through the media in relation to criminal proceedings.
Official information is essential for journalists to be able to correctly reflect criminal proceedings of public interest.The objectivity of media publications could be compromised if they rely on information obtained from unofficial sources that are seldom anonymous. Such a scenario is well demonstrated by the case study on the murder of Antonino Barbaro in Italy. No official information was issued by the public authorities during the criminal proceedings. However, the case has been reported by local newspapers and TV programmes to a large audience, particularly in the local area where the two accused brothers lived. The media coverage on the case was limited to the initial phase of the proceedings, only showing the arrest of the suspects which was broadcasted live on a local TV channel. Subsequently, publications released by the press and on TV included mugshots of suspects obtained from non-official sources (anonymous email in which the case was described in great detail) and video footage of their arrest. Arguably, the lack of official information provided by the authorities led to “trial by the media”. It was observed that journalists following the case went beyond their duty to report objective information to the public and practically made accusations grounded on unconfirmed evidence, thus defaming the defendants and seriously infringing the presumption of their innocence. Relying on such unverified materials and unofficial information, the media presented an interpretation of the case and gave a public verdict though prejudiced headlines such as "Syracuse, they killed defaulting tenant with 27 stab wounds, two brothers arrested" and “Francofonte, they killed a 67-year-old man with 27 stab wounds for 700 euro: Carabinieri arrest the perpetrators of the murder.”
Both articles were published prior to the court’s final decision. The analysis on the case underlined the journalists’ accusatory tone towards the two suspected brothers in the majority of articles disseminated online and on traditional media, as well as during the interviews with the defendants aired on TV. It should be stressed that many of the reporter's assumptions were later proved to be incorrect, as the case was dismissed without a hearing and the suspects were eventually acquitted. The general public never became aware of the full story. The media did not rectify the false statements, neither did the judicial authorities provide further official information regarding the course of the proceedings and the changed legal status of the brothers, although it is essential for the suspects’ vindication.
Other examples of unavailability of sufficient official information was the case of sexual assault that became known as “the Herd” (La Manada) as well as in the case of the murder of Manolis Kantaris at Athens city center. Regardless of the fact that “the Herd” process continued for more than two years and was extensively covered by the press, the Navarra City Council and the local police issued only two official communiques at a very early stage of the criminal proceedings. The case gained popularity and generated a wave of public reactions which translated into social media campaigns and rallies in the city of Pamplona. Contrary to the Council of Europe recommendations, the authorities did not inform the general public about the progress on the case. Thus, similar to the above-mentioned Antonino Barbaro murder case, the media turned to unofficial sources in order to collect information and materials, many of which presented photos and personal details about the defendants. Analogically, all official information regarding the murder case of Manolis Kantaris was presented in a single press release by the Greek police authorities on the day of the suspects’ arrest. Given the specifics of the crime, particularly that the victim was murdered on his way to the maternity hospital as his wife was about the give birth, the small material gain from the crime (a camera valued EUR 120), and the foreign nationality of the suspects, the case attracted great public interest and media coverage continued years after the incident. Nevertheless, the press release was the only official information presented during all stages of the proceedings. Due to the large public interest, a considerable volume of materials from the case file was unofficially disclosed and published. Some publications included pictures of the suspects pointed out as “Kantaris’ murderers” long before their conviction.
It is noteworthy that in another of the examined cases in Spain, “The Process”, where all the defendants were politicians, i.e. public figures, the entire judicial process, from the beginning of the investigation to the appeals, was reported to the media through regular official press releases by the judicial authorities. It could be assumed that the specific nature of the charges (crime of rebellion), and the arrest of public figures (members of parliamentary bureau and ministers), increased the level of public interest and determined the exhaustive and regular provision of information by the authorities. On the other hand, it raises concerns about the equal application of the principles for provision of information through the media in relation to criminal proceedings depending on characteristics such as the social status or the profession of the accused.
The examination of the cases suggests the existence of a concerning practice of provision of insufficient and partial information about ongoing criminal cases by official authorities. This is problematic, as it deprives the public from understanding certain facts that could be crucial for forming an unbiased opinion about the persons involved as suspects or accused in the criminal proceedings. Moreover, media outlets aiming to increase their readership and driven by the audience’s interest on the topic, which is usually high for criminal cases, tend to use unofficial information acquired from unverified sources whose identity remains uncovered by virtue of the right to remain anonymous. In many of the case studies, the media “take over” the role of the judiciary and report information in a way that gives the impression that a conviction has been issued. The presumption of innocence is frequently improperly observed by the media, while the tacit consent of the law enforcement and judicial authorities could exacerbate the perception of guilt. Thereby, the irregular and scarce provision of official information to media regarding criminal cases can have important implications on the defendants’ lives. It is particularly harmful for those who were acquitted as demonstrated by the case of the murder of Antonino Barbaro.
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a project to investigate the consequences to people’s personal lives when accused in committing a crime.
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