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Landmark trial

April 18, 2012

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway last year, has attracted huge media attention. But reporting on it without providing a platform for Breivik's far-right ideology is a challenge.

An image of Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is projected onto a screen in the press room, where journalists without access to the courtroom followed proceedings on large projector screens, during his terrorism and murder trial in Oslo April 16, 2012. Breivik, who massacred 77 people last summer, arrived under heavy armed guard at an Oslo courthouse on Monday, lifting his arm in what he has called a rightist salute as his trial began. Breivik, 33, has admitted setting off a car bomb that killed eight people at government headquarters in Oslo last July, then massacring 69 in a shooting spree at an island summer camp for Labour Party youths. REUTERS/Lise Aserud/Scanpix Norway (NORWAY - Tags: CRIME LAW) NO COMMERCIAL OR BOOK SALES. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NORWAY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NORWAY
Breivik's trial has attracted huge international media attentionImage: Reuters

Several newspapers around the world had the same photograph on their front pages – Anders Behring Breivik touching his chest and extending his clenched right fist in front of him in a fascist salute on the first day of his trial earlier this week. Others opted for a more neutral image of Breivik.

Communications expert Christian Schicha pointed out that the images were accessible everywhere even when a media outlet chose not to show it. But "it's not wrong to expound the problems and to describe it," Schicha said in an interview on German television.

'Measured and restrained'

Experts agree that it's absolutely necessary for journalists to cover the landmark trial in Oslo. After all, it's an extraordinary legal event in Norwegian history involving a serious crime with a far-right background. There is huge public interest, too.

Accused Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik sits between his defence lawyers Geir Lippestad, left, and Vibeke Hein Baera in the courtroom, in Oslo, Norway, Wednesday April 18, 2012. Breivik has five days to explain why he detonated a bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, killing eight people, then drove to a nearby resort island, where he massacred 69 others at a summer youth camp run by the governing Labor Party. (Foto:Lise Aserud/Scanpix Norway/POOL/AP/dapd)
Breivik faces cross-examination in courtImage: AP

"It's a terrible event and you have to report on it," political scientist Hajo Funke from the Free University in Berlin said on Germany's ARD broadcaster. "And you have to report on what drove this person to do it." At the same time, Funke urged a more measured and restrained coverage.

Ethics expert Alesander Filipovic from the University of Münster also called for restraint. "You should play down all the questions about his private life and report in a matter-of-fact way about what's said during the trial."

Most experts agree that a reporting ban would bestow a special status on the Breivik case that could play into his hands and lead to a mystification of his person through possible followers. A contextual, sensible reporting on the other hand shows that Breivik is subject to the same legal rules that apply to everyone.

"It would be irresponsible not to report on the trial," Christian Schicha said.

'Abhorrence and fascination'

But criticism continues on how the event is being covered in the media. On the first day of the trial, television cameras broadcast live images from the courtroom – something that would not have been allowed in Germany.

But court officials have since forbidden live TV coverage and any recording of Breivik's testimony over the next days in which he faces questioning. A few Norwegian newspapers and websites have opted not to report on the trial altogether out of consideration for the victims' families.

Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen speaks during the first day of the trial against Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo, April 16, 2012. The terrorism and murder trial against Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, who has confessed to the bomb and shooting attacks that killed 77 people in Norway in July 2011, began in Oslo on Monday. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (NORWAY - Tags: CRIME LAW)
Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen is overseeing the Breivik trialImage: Reuters

Hans-Joachim Otto, German deputy economics minister from the liberal FDP party, has slammed the way the media has been reporting on it, calling it "really difficult to bear." Otto heads an FDP committe on the Internet and media.

In some cases, neutral reporting had switched to a focus on Breivik "which though filled with abhorrence hasn't been free of fascination," Otto said.

Breivik's unintended helpers?

Some critics have pointed out that the victims have been overshadowed by the coverage of Breivik. The German Journalists Association (DJV) pointed to the press code which says that reporting on tragedies and catastrophes must have limits out of respect for the suffering of the victims and the feelings of their families. Those hit by tragedy cannot be allowed to become victims for a second time through the news portrayal, according to the German press code.

Michael Konken, federal chairman of the DJV, said journalists needed to weigh how much coverage they wanted to give Breivik.

A man places a Norwegian flag between flowers in Utvika in front of the Utoya island, near Oslo, Norway, Tuesday, July 26, 2011, where a gunman Anders Behring Breivik killed at least 76 people. The defense lawyer for Anders Behring Breivik said Tuesday his client's case suggests he is insane, adding that someone has to take the job of defending him but that he will not take instructions from his client. Geir Lippestad told reporters that the suspect in the bombing on the capital and the brutal attack on a youth camp that killed at least 76 people is not aware of the death toll or of the public's response to the massacre that has rocked the country. (Foto:Ferdinand Ostrop/AP/dapd)
Critics say reporting has to be respectful of the victims' familiesImage: dapd

"If journalists give the testimony of the defendant as much room as he wants then the horror and monstrosity of his acts fade into the background," Konken said, adding that cannot be allowed to happen at any cost. There has to be a balance between journalists' duty to inform and the need to protect victims, he said.

"Journalists cannot let themselves become Breivik's unintended helpers," Konken added.

Author: Daphne Grathwohl / sp
Editor: Neil King