May names of celebrities under investigation be disseminated by the media? The German Jurists’ Conference is now discussing this.
"A well-known weather presenter" would be just as forbidden as "Jorg Kachelmann" according to the expert opinion. photo: dpa
Prominent defendants in criminal proceedings should be better protected from the media in the future. This is what Dusseldorf law professor Karsten Altenhain demands in an expert opinion for the German Jurists’ Conference, which begins on Tuesday in Essen.
The "Public in Criminal Proceedings" is the topic of the criminal law section of the Juristentag. It’s not just about cameras in the courtroom, which Justice Minister Heiko Maas wants to allow in federal court sentences. Expert Altenhain focuses more on the preliminary proceedings, i.e. the phase that ends with indictment or dismissal.
So far, only the general rules of the state press laws apply there. According to these, journalists are generally entitled to information – unless a "private interest worthy of protection" would be violated. In practice, public prosecutors confirm the name of a defendant if he or she is already publicly known or if the defendant is a public figure.
However, the accused in criminal proceedings are not sufficiently protected in this way, Altenhain believes. There is a danger of prejudgement. It is not the fault of the judiciary if principles of the rule of law, such as the presumption of innocence, are poorly anchored in the public. Nevertheless, he said, those affected must be protected from having their names made public prematurely. This must also apply to information that makes identification easy (for example, the phrase "a well-known weather presenter" for Jorg Kachelmann).
New paragraph demanded
Altenhain now proposes a new paragraph in the Code of Criminal Procedure (§ 457a). According to this, the public prosecutor’s office would only be allowed to disclose the name of an accused person to the media if the person concerned agrees or if the name is already known (for example, because the victim of the crime went to the press). It should not be sufficient that it is a prominent person. That would be the "principle of the tabloid newspaper," criticizes lawyer Altenhain.
It is true that entertaining reporting on the lives of celebrities is also protected by freedom of the press, so the media can write about criminal proceedings against celebrities if they learn about them. But this does not mean, says Altenhain, that the state has to provide the media with the information. But the press’s right to information in criminal proceedings has a different function, he said, and is intended to enable public scrutiny of the state judiciary. However, the expert argues that this control is no more urgent for celebrities than for other defendants.
Up to now, there has been a great danger that celebrities will be prejudged in criminal proceedings.
The rules should apply not only to responses to press inquiries, but also to communications by the public prosecutor’s office on its own initiative. Independent public relations work by investigators has existed for a long time, but so far it has not been regulated by law at all, not even in the press laws. Altenhain considers it useful, for example, to correct misinformation, such as that a fire was not caused by arson. Even if the public prosecutor’s office is criticized polemically, it is allowed to react, but only factually; it has no "right to counterattack."
The Juristentag has existed since 1860 and usually meets every two years to discuss legal policy recommendations. Around 3,000 lawyers, judges, public prosecutors, business and administrative lawyers, and legal scholars attend each event.