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What’s in a name: crime suspects and the Swedish press

What’s in a name: crime suspects and the Swedish press

Published: 23 Feb 2009 10:10 GMT+01:00
Updated: 23 Feb 2009 10:10 GMT+01:00

The Local’s David Landes attempts to shed some light on the Swedish media’s sometimes peculiar practice of omitting the names of criminal suspects.

On Monday, a Swedish appeals court upheld the lifetime prison sentence of Christine Schürrer, a 32-year-old German woman convicted of murdering two toddlers in Arboga early last year.

Astute observers of the Swedish media may have noticed that the following day marked the first time that Sweden’s newspaper of record, Dagens Nyheter (DN), published Schürrer’s name, despite the fact that she had been named previously in nearly every other publication in Sweden, including The Local.

Most Swedish papers waited to publish Schürrer’s name until the day after her guilty verdict was handed down, even though foreign news outlets had been publishing her name for weeks.

For months following her arrest, Schürrer was referred to by the Swedish press simply as “the German woman” or “the 32-year-old” even though her name was readily available in court documents and some had gone to her Facebook profile to find more information.

In short, her name was easy to find, yet newspapers and other media outlets in Sweden continued to write stories as if Schürrer’s identity was some sort of state secret.

And while Schürrer’s guilty verdict, when she went from being a suspect to a convicted criminal, was generally seen as a green light for editors to publish her name and picture, DN nevertheless continued referring to her simply as “the German” right up until Monday’s appeals court ruling.

To readers raised on a different set of journalistic norms, the Swedish practice of withholding pertinent facts about a story may first appear like some odd form of self-censorship.

In its most basic form, news reporting is about telling readers “who” did “what”. According to some schools of media ethics, leaving out basic information like the identity of the “who” amounts to uninformative reporting on the one hand, or deliberate deception on the other.

Moreover, omitting a person’s name from a story can also leave readers wondering exactly what facts the reporter actually has in hand, and what may be conjecture.

While there are many 32-year-old German women in Sweden for example, there is only one Christine Schürrer.

But Britt Börjesson, a professor of media ethics at Gothenburg University, explains that the practice has more to do with Swedish culture than any attempt to alter the truth or muddy the facts.

“Sweden is a small country with a small language and with a tradition of reaching consensus,” she says.

“It’s something in our culture. When television stations or newspapers step over the line [in naming suspects], readers react and complain that it’s not ethical.”

According to Börjesson, the practice of not publishing suspects’ names began as an effort to protect young people accused of less serious offences from long-term public ridicule.

“The point was to give them a chance to come back and become good citizens again,” she says, adding there is a sense in Sweden that keeping criminals’ personal details confidential not only helps against recidivism, but also aids in defendants receiving a fair trial.

While Sweden does have laws protecting individuals from defamation, suits by people claiming that newspapers have violated the law are rare.

Moreover, there are no provisions in Swedish law specifically prohibiting newspapers from publishing suspects’ names.

“It’s not illegal. We just think it’s an expression of proper journalistic ethics,” says Börjesson.

The two main sections of Swedish legislation outlining press freedoms primarily address protecting free speech, and Sweden’s law on personal data protection has exceptions for details published for journalistic purposes.

But the slim chance of facing retribution in a court of law hasn’t kept most Swedish dailies from erring on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to publish names, as instructed by the set of rules outlining accepted journalistic practice in Sweden.

The rules stem from an early attempt at self-regulation first developed by Sweden’s National Press Club (Publicistklubben – PK) back in 1923.

In 1965, the Swedish Union of Journalists (Svenska Journalistförbundet) formally adopted a code of professional conduct, with the Press Ombudsman (Allmänhetens Pressombudsman – PO) being added in 1969 to help adjudicate cases when newspapers were suspected of failing to live up to the ethics code.

The code’s provisions on publishing names are quite clear, admonishing journalists to exercise extreme vigilance.

“Give careful consideration to the harmful consequences that might ensue for persons if their names are published. Refrain from publishing names if it might cause harm unless it is obviously in the public interest,” reads one section of the code, known as “The Rules of the Game” (Spelregler).

Other clauses emphasize the importance of not “violating the privacy of individuals” and refraining from subjecting individuals to undue publicity “unless the public interest obviously demands public scrutiny”.

Börjesson likens Sweden’s press ethics rules to a protocol, the interpretation of which fluctuates over time and which has evolved over decades of discussion in newsrooms and in society at large.

Responsibility for maintaining the code rests with a joint committee consisting of the union, the press club, the Newspapers Publishers Association (Tidningsutgivarna), and the Magazine Publishers Association (Sveriges Tidskrifter).

But while the interpretation of the rules may change, the wording of the rules is rarely altered.

“Their meaning and how they are interpreted can change without changing the actual wording of the rules,” says Börjesson.

She points to the mid-1980s as a time when the pendulum had perhaps swung the farthest away from publishing the names of criminal suspects.

So strong was the resistance among Swedish newspaper editors toward publishing names that they refused to name Christer Pettersson, the man suspected of committing one of the biggest crimes in the country’s history – the murder of then-Prime Minister Olof Palme.

“No one published the name of Palme’s suspected killer until the start of his trial, which was months after he’d been arrested,” explain Börjesson, adding that the decision by Swedish papers to finally publish Pettersson’s name was news in and of itself.

Since then, publishers have relaxed a bit in their interpretation of the press ethics rules.

“Today we print the names and identities of some criminals, usually particularly vicious criminals who are a danger to society. But still, we withhold the identities in most cases,” says Börjesson.

Börjesson also questions how much value Swedes place on learning a suspect’s name.

“What would we do with that information anyway? It’s not interesting,” she explains.

“Why should we care? As a reader, I don’t need to know.”

She admits, however, that there are cases where knowing the name of a suspect is relevant, such as a case involving a teacher at a local school or an offence committed in one’s own neighbourhood.

“But in those cases, there are other ways to get that information for anyone who is interested,” explained Börjesson, pointing to Sweden’s strong tradition of openness with public documents.

Sweden is considered the first country in the world to have enacted modern freedom of information legislation with its Press Freedom Act of 1766.

The act served as the genesis of that what is commonly referred to today as “offentlighetsprincipen” (‘The Principle of Public Access’) which stipulates that “every Swedish citizen has the right to access public documents”, according to the current constitution.

The constitution also guarantees that people who leak confidential documents to the media are protected from criminal charges.

What's more, it's the person who undertakes any effort to unmask the identity of a leaker that may instead be subject to prosecution.

Börjesson believes that Sweden’s tradition of openness is part of the reason why publishers resist printing names, and part of the reason why Swedes are so willing to accept the omission.

Before the advent of the internet, publishers of Sweden’s morning newspapers had a special role in the dissemination of information to the public. They were, according to Börjesson, “journalistic guides” for the whole industry and the country.

However, as it has become easier to get information from other sources on the internet, the status of newspaper editors had been somewhat diminished.

But that hasn’t stopped some editors, like Thorbjörn Larsson at Dagens Nyheter, from sticking to traditional ethical principles, even if the practical effect is limited.

“The argument that ‘it’s on the internet, so we should print it’ has been around for 15 years and has yet to gain any traction,” explains Börjesson.

As a result, Swedish newspapers can exercise a great deal of discretion when it comes to deciding what to publish.

According to Daniel Westman, an expert on IT-law at Stockholm University, the new media landscape poses a number of challenges for Sweden’s press freedom rules.

He believes it’s time to consider a facelift for both the journalists’ code of ethics and Swedish law.

“Suddenly we have a situation where publishers should also look at what sort of information other newspapers or individual websites have published with respect to personal information,” he says.

“Currently, the degree to which a publisher is responsible for looking at what others are doing when making his or her own decisions about what to publish hasn’t been dealt with satisfactorily.”

He adds however, that no matter what sort of new rules Sweden eventually puts in place, they may ultimately have little impact.

“If everyone can easily publish information on the internet via servers placed in other countries, then it may eventually not matter which of Sweden’s rules apply because there will be limits to how they can be enforced,” he said.

“At some point, everything will end up on the internet if someone wants it there.”

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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