Innocent until proven guilty? The presumption of innocence regularly violated across the globe
Despite everyone having the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, public statements of guilt, media coverage presenting the suspect as though they are guilty, and the use of restraints are common all over the world. Fair Trials new report Innocent until proven guilty? The presentation of suspects in criminal proceedings shows how this right is being violated in practice and recommends possible solutions to tackle the problem. The research was produced together with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Aditus Foundation, Human Rights House, Mérték, Rights International Spain, and the University of Vienna, with pro bono support from Hogan Lovells.
Public statements implying the guilt of a suspect are common in many countries across the globe, including in Europe, especially when there is a lot of public interest in the case. There are differences in how countries legal systems approach the question of how open ongoing criminal proceedings should be, but even where secrecy is sought, it often fails if there is considerable public interest in the story.
Media reporting on criminal cases frequently violate the presumption of innocence: suspects are commonly presented as though they are guilty, particularly through attention-grabbing headlines, and reporting is often unbalanced against them. The report found that migrants, refugees and/or Muslim suspects are more likely to bear the brunt of these problems.
The research shows that if people see an image of someone being arrested they are likely to think the person is guilty. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, in many countries it is common for suspects to be paraded before the media at the time of their arrest or during transfers to and from court. The perp walk, which has become ubiquitous in some countries, most famously the US, is a good example of this.
Many countries in Europe have robust rules governing how suspects are presented in court, including the use of restraints, and how they are transported to and from court. In practice, however, in some countries it is common for suspects to be restrained in court when there is no objective justification for this. The use of cages and glass boxes is common as well, even though research shows that a person is more likely to be convicted if they are in a cage or glass box during the court proceedings.
As for the solutions, the EU Directive is an important first step in making the presumption of innocence a reality in Europe, but considerable time and political will must be invested in its implementation. Public statements implying guilt should be clearly prohibited.
Training should be offered to journalists to help them understand the impact their reporting on criminal cases can have. The report includes a checklist which is part of a toolkit for journalists reporting on suspects, produced by the University of Vienna. A specific section on covering criminal proceedings in journalists codes of conduct, as well as a blanket prohibition on taking photos of people in restraints would help prevent violations.
Laws on how suspects are presented in public should limit the use of restraints and their exposure to the public and press at the time of arrest and during transport to and from the court. The use of any form of restraint in court should be strictly limited, and cages and glass boxes should be removed from all courtrooms.
Our first aim is to prevent violations, but when they do happen, they need to be investigated and enforced by impartial bodies, and redress such as compensation or public apology must be provided. In particularly severe cases, which threaten the chance of the suspect receiving a fair trial, or undermine the integrity of the justice system, it may be appropriate to drop charges or quash a conviction.
Robust laws are important, but not enough. Long-term engagement of law enforcement, legal professionals and the media is crucial, alongside broader public education, to make profound changes in law, practice and culture.
Watch our short film below, where we share the stories of Nahuel, János and Robert to show what can happen when the right to be presumed innocent isn’t respected.
The report and the film were produced as part of the project The Importance of Appearances: How Suspects and Accused Persons are Presented in the Courtroom, in Public and in the Media, coordinated by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee with partners Aditus Foundation (Malta), Fair Trials, Human Rights House, Zagreb (Croatia), Mérték (Hungary), Rights International Spain, and the University of Vienna, with the support of our pro bono partner Hogan Lovells.
This work was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Justice Programme of the European Union. The content of this work represents the views of the authors only and is their sole responsibility.