Project Partners: Hungarian Helsinki Committee (Lead Partner), aditus foundation, Fair Trials Europe, Human Rights House Zagreb, Mérték, Rights International Spain, Vienna University. Supported by: This project is funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014 – 2020)
According to EU Directive (EU) 2016/343 on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceeding proceedings, Member States must ensure that suspects and accused persons are not presented as being guilty, in court or in public through the use of measures of physical restraint such as handcuffs, glass boxes, cages and leg irons.
aditus, together with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and partners (Fair Trials Europe, Human Rights House Zagreb, Mérték, Rights International Spain and the Vienna University), have been working together to increase knowledge and sensitivity to the presumption of innocence among professionals and the public. The Importance of Appearances: How Suspects and Accused Persons are presented in the Courtroom, in Public and in the Media project page can be accessed on this link.
Over the past year the aditus team, coordinated by our Assistant Director Carla Camilleri, has been carrying out a media review in order to collect and analyse data on the media representation of suspects and accused persons at all stages of the arrest and subsequent legal proceedings in Malta. This process included a sampling phase spanning a number of months of all news reporting relating to arrests of suspects or criminal court proceedings in printed newspapers, online portals and TV broadcasts in both the Maltese and English language press. The ultimate purpose of the research was to identify good and bad practice regarding the presumption of innocence in various sectors of the media. Stories were selected and coded by all project partners in their respective countries in accordance with the guidelines and procedures developed by the Vienna University team.
The results of the Maltese media review were collated into a National Media Report, which can be read in full here. The Report gives an overview of the laws, legal guidelines and legal framework relating to the media and criminal justice. It also gives a contextual outline of the media landscape in Malta, focusing on printed media and their websites, online news portals and also television broadcasts.
In the course of the research, the main legal provisions regulating the portrayal of suspects in the media that were identified are the following:
- Requirements as to Standards and Practice applicable to News Bulletins and Current Affairs: persons accused of criminal matters should not be projected as if they are already found guilty and the principle of presumption of innocence must be fully respected. Trial by the media before any court judgement is delivered must be avoided at all times and care should be taken to avoid broadcasting repetitive footage that might prejudice the accused’s right to a fair trial.
- Juvenile Court Act: newspaper reports, or sound or television broadcasts are prohibited from revealing the name, address or school, or include any particulars that may lead to the identification, of any child or young person under the age of 16 in criminal proceedings. The publication of any picture in any newspaper or on television as being or including a picture of any child or young person in any criminal proceedings, before the Juvenile Court and also the Criminal Court, is also prohibited.
- Code of Journalistic Ethics: all reports of crimes and court proceedings should be strictly factual and a clear distinction should be made and explained between the facts and the expression of opinion. The naming of minors in court reporting is prohibited.
The findings of the media review of the reports and broadcasts from the selected television programmes, newspapers and online websites resulted a number of trends that may negatively influence the perception of suspects or accused persons as guilty. In this regard, a worrying trend was noted in relation to the use of images and film of the suspect on entering the Court building. Several incidences were recorded in which suspects were led by the Police through a pedestrian area and into the Court buildings through the front doors, as opposed to the back entrance. In this way reporters and journalists would publish or broadcast photographs or footage of suspects being led into Court handcuffed and escorted by a number of police officers. The negative portrayal of suspects or accused persons could potentially influence a person’s perception of their guilt and any future trial.
The research also highlighted that reporters and journalists from all media types consistently made explicit reference to the ethnicity and nationality of the alleged perpetrators. Frequently, the headlines would use nationality as the descriptor, for example “A Serb”, “Two Syrians” or “Russian with Maltese citizenship“, whilst no further descriptors are used for Maltese suspects, for example “double murder suspect still to be questioned”.
The use of visual representation which shows police officers, handcuffs and otherwise threatening representation of the defendants is also very common to newspapers, online portals and television broadcasters. However, it was also noted that only a few examples in which explicit reference to previous convictions were mentioned, whilst no explicit reference to guilt of the defendant were found in the sampled reports.
In the coming months an in-depth report on the legal framework regulating the use of restraining measures on suspects and accused persons, which also includes practical experiences of stakeholders in the field, will be published.