Should reference be made to a criminal suspect’s background? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.12.2016
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Should reference be made to a criminal suspect’s background?

When reporting on crime, is it relevant to say that a suspect was a refugee? The recent murder in Freiburg again raises the question of whether or not to specify the background of people suspected of committing a crime.

"There must be no discrimination against a person on account of his/her sex, a disability, or his membership of an ethnic, religious, social or national group,” says Section 12 of the Press Code issued by the German Press Council. It sets down the following guideline for journalists: "When reporting crimes, it is not permissible to refer to the suspect's religious, ethnic or other minority membership unless this information can be justified as being relevant to the readers' understanding of the incident.” This is because there is a danger "that such references could stir up prejudices against minorities.”

After the sexual harrassment attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve, the media, police and politicians were all reluctant to state the unpleasant truth: that almost all the suspects were of North African or Arab origin, with asylum seekers from Syria among them. This was likely to cast serious doubts on the government's refugee policy, so the reasoning. The hesitation by the media and those with political responsibility opened them up to accusations of trying to hush things up. Nonetheless, a few weeks later the Press Council decided it would retain Section 12 in its current form.

A question of interpretation

Since then, the debate about referring to a suspect's origins has been reignited every time a crime has been committed by or involving people with an immigrant or refugee background. The most recent instance was the murder of 19-year-old Maria L. in Freiburg. The suspected culprit is a 17-year-old Afghan boy.

Freiburg Gedenken an die ermordete Studentin Maria (DW/M. Saifullah)

Afghan refugees came to show their sympathies for Maria L., who was murdered by a 17-year-old Afghan

Politicians are also weighing in. The general secretary of the CSU, Andreas Scheuer, whose party has been critical of Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies since the beginning, declared in the newspaper Die Welt that "the background of perpetrator and victims must be stated, on principle, partly in order to prevent wild speculation.”

Editors-in-chief want reform

Scheuer also points out that, in any case, traditional media outlets can't keep information out of the public domain any more because of the internet and social media. And once information has been made public, it's impossible to ignore.

Then, alongside the debate about the case itself, a second debate began about the way the media handled the details. The harshest criticism was directed at the main national television news program, "Tagesschau.” Initially it didn't report on the murder at all, deeming it to be only of "regional significance,” and was then forced to watch helplessly as the Tagesschau itself became a big news story. Even Lutz Tillmanns of the German Press Council said that "now, when the case is on everyone's lips and a news story is all over both Germany and Europe, reference to the suspect's background is relevant and important for the understanding of the story.”

Pressure to change the press code is coming not only from politics, but also from journalists themselves. Tanit Koch, editor-in-chief of the mass circulation Bild newspaper, has described the passage in the code as "unjustified self-censorship” that damages the credibility of the media as a whole. Christian Lindner, editor-in-chief of the Koblenz-based Rhein-Zeitung, believes the code is, at the very least, outdated: "I want a reformulation that will bring the media back out from under the shadow of a suspicion that they are trying to conceal information for political reasons.” The Sächsische Zeitung in Dresden has already taken steps: It now names the background of all suspects on principle, including Germans who do not have an immigrant background.

Responsible or patronizing?

Köln Übergriffe in der Silvesternacht (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Boehm)

Dozens of refugees sexually harrassed women in Cologne on New Years Eve last year

There's also a financial reason – perhaps even the main reason – for the unease among the editors-in-chief. The newspaper industry is already under severe economic pressure as it struggles to compete with electronic media. And if readers feel their newspaper is trying to manipulate them, they may go somewhere else for their news.

However, despite all the competition from social media, Lutz Tillmanns from the Press Council refuses to abandon journalistic standards. "We want to offer quality content,” he says. "Journalistic content is, quite simply, more professionally put together than ordinary communication on social media.” And he says that if a suspect's background is referred to, it's also important to "consider the effect on the public.”

The question is, how does it come across if you "consider the effect on the public”?

Writing in Die Welt newspaper, the author Kathrin Spoerr fears that readers may feel they're being patronized. "It [the Press Code] places little faith in the reader. No judgement, just prejudice. It places too much faith in journalists to know how much faith can be placed in the people.” Spoerr is in favor of naming a person's background.

Lutz Tillmanns admits that no press code is ever set in stone. "A code is always the subject of debate,” he says; and the application of Section 12 is sure to be the subject of heated debate once again at the next meeting of the Council.


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