The high-profile trial of a German TV weatherman accused of threatening and raping his girlfriend has resumed. Experts fear that months of pre-trial media hype might have influenced witnesses.
The media have for months focussed on the Kachelmann case
The trial of Joerg Kachelmann has been eagerly awaited in the German media: his weather forecasts were a popular nightly addition to the news bulletins on the country's public television network, ARD.
Kachelmann, 52, was arrested and remanded into custody in March after his long-time girlfriend alleged he had assaulted her in their apartment following an argument.
Prosecutors in the southern German city of Mannheim on Monday charged him with aggravated rape and assault, but pre-trial hearings are not open to the media. All the same, the media - and by no means just the tabloids – have for months been leaking expert opinions and details from court records. The public was even invited to get involved in a pre-trial online poll to decide whether or not the weatherman was innocent.
Such coverage is being described by some commentators as 'unprecedented.'
Public interest in the trial of Joerg Kachelmann has been immense
"It is not good for the media, it is not good for the trial, and it is to a certain extent a danger for the constitutional state, as it does not let the court work in peace," legal expert Karl-Dieter Moeller told ARD.
German media expert Jo Groebel said the debate was already out of control to a certain extent, and the question now was whether the judges were still in a position to act independently despite the extensive media reporting
"There's too much speculation already whether there is guilt or no guilt, innocence or not, whether there has been a rape or not," he told Deutsche Welle. "I would say at best, with all the ups and downs of media reporting, we have the strong role of the media as a fourth power to control what is happening in court."
Groebel said that the Kachelmann case had turned into a crime story with all the ingredients of a soap opera. He added that, undoubtedly, the case would never have made it into the public eye had 'normal people' been involved.
Media expert Groebel feels too much speculation could have distorting effect
'Like an American crime drama'
However, the fact that Kachelmann is well-known figure is not the only reason the case has attracted so much media attention. "Many aspects come together," said Hans Mathias Kepplinger, a professor for Communication Research at Mainz University. "On one hand, the case is about sex and violence, and on the other, about the relationship between a celebrity and a regular person; it is also about the role of the media and the general issue of the independence of the judiciary."
Lawyers in Germany have for decades used the media to try to influence the public in favour of their clients, he said, with defence attorneys more prone to leak information than state prosecutors.
An alarming effect
Kepplinger said he was not worried that professional judges would be influenced by the extensive pre-trial media coverage, but the witnesses may be a different matter. "Maybe they feel pressured not to give as much information, others feel encouraged to speak, and some will sell their knowledge to the media. A game is set in motion that is hardly compatible with a trial," he said.
The Mainz professor recently published a study on the media's influence on state prosecutors and judges that found that about 80 percent of state prosecutors and judges were convinced that witnesses are influenced by press reports. If that was the case, Kepplinger said, then " that has an effect on the evidence they give and that again indirectly affects the severity of the court's sentence."
Author: Dagmar Breitenbach
Editor: Rob Turner