Don’t muzzle press watchdogs

LAST UPDATED: 17 Jan, 2014 @ 23:12
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Don’t muzzle press watchdogs

Antonio Flores discusses the importance of press freedoms

IT is a well-known fact that under English laws, once legal proceedings become active, it is a criminal offence for media organisations to broadcast material which would create a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings.

Statutory contempt law, also known as ‘sub judice’ rules, come into force once a person is arrested, a warrant for arrest is issued, a summons has been issued, or a person has been charged and they remain so until such time as the accused has been acquitted or convicted.

In Spain, such rules don’t exist in (specifically for the press) save for when a court specifically orders the proceedings to be ‘secret’ (secreto de sumario), but then it is a general ban on any person or organisation privy to such information.

Outside of this exception, although parties to the case are supposed to treat data confidentially, there is almost free rein for the press to publish details of pretty much any case ventilated through Spanish Courts, in the investigation phase (as the trial is officially public); no doubt the consequence of many decades of fierce censorship under Franco’s ruling.

Recently, the investigating Judge José Castro said the following in respect of the magnitude of the leaks on the ‘Urdangarin’ case (King Juan Carlos’ son in law): “A secret shared by so many people makes it practically impossible to keep with scrupulous confidentiality”. In his writ, the Magistrate explained that leaks could have come from lawyers, procurators, police forces, prosecutors or civil servants, among others, and argued that it would be a waste of public money to try to find the culprit, if this was at all possible. The press is not mentioned here, the reason being that they are expected – almost obliged – to publish any information deemed in the public interest and this is rarely questioned.

In 2004, the Communications Department of the General Council of Judiciary issued a protocol in respect to the type of information that could be released by the Courts, when a case was in the investigation phase, but this has never gone beyond being a mere ‘recommendation’.

Finally, the Spanish Constitution Tribunal has, on many occasions, stressed the importance of freedom of communication and expression as a pillar of democracy citing, insofar as journalism is concerned, a paragraph of the famous European Court of Human Rights Goodwin vs. United Kingdom case:

“If journalists are forced to reveal their sources the role of the press as public watchdog could be seriously undermined because of the chilling effect that such disclosure would have on the free flow of information.”

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  1. There is of course a huge difference between the English legal system, an accusatorial system which operates with a jury of lay persons, and most other systems which are Inquisitorial, and operate, largely, with professional judges. The jury system relies on what someone once famously described as “12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty “, who must not be influenced by what they read in the papers. Other systems rely on professional judges not being influenced by the tripe in Red-Top tabloids. In the English system the jury and the judge are not permitted to ask questions to find out what actually happened. In the other systems, that is what they are all there to do. One result of this is that Libel Lawyers have a strangle hold over the British press – as we have seen over the last few years – and they are therefore intimidated into either not publishing, or, as we have seen even here over the last week, taking down a perfectly good and proper story of local and general interest. I hope the libel lawyers allow you to publish this !

  2. PM above has a “unique” point of view. Surely the British system of judgement accounts for so many accused of 25+ minor criminal acts going back on the streets … to do more! Maybe the UK prisons don’t have enough rooms with wide screen TVs for more prisoners? Another Cameron …”dither”?
    History repeatedly shows that a dictatorship does two things to gain power – CONTROL the media so they control info to the Public and also CONTROL education of the young.
    When you see those happening, it’s a warning!

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