Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The polite press of Sweden

A 42-year-old man was on the run from police in Sweden for eight days, suspected of killing a 10-year-old girl. The girl went missing while out riding her bike.

Police finally arrested a man and tied him to other murders in Sweden. They are now testing his DNA to see if several cold case files in Norway and Denmark can be solved.

While pictures of the girl, her crying parents and her quaint hometown were plastered all over the tabloids for a week, photos of the man the Swedish media refers to as “the 42-year-old” didn’t appear until he recently admitted to the murders.

The newspapers all knew who he was. They had his photo. They knew he was a suspect in several murders and on the run from police.

“He could have been totally innocent,” the publisher of one tabloid says in an interview, after a journalism professor wrote an opinion column about publishing names of criminals.

Media’s role in society is to inform the public while doing minimal harm. In the United States, people’s names are printed in the paper from the day they get arrested – it doesn’t matter if they stole a scarf from a local store or if they are accused of killing someone while driving drunk. The only exception are people under 17, juveniles, who are protected by several state and federal laws unless they commit a heinous crime.

In Sweden, newspapers usually do not publish names until a person has been convicted. Sometimes not even then. Pedophiles, for some reason, never get their names in the paper, even after they are sentenced. Why? Because they need to be protected from society after committing such a horrible crime. And, they may be “cured” from their horrible sickness and should then have the right to return to society to live like normal people.

But what about the victims? What about other possible victims? Wouldn’t you like to know if a man convicted of a sex crime moves in next door to your family? Shouldn’t you have the right to know?

The Swedish professor calls for eased-up rules of publishing names. Publishing a suspect’s name “can make witnesses aware that they have important information they need to share with police,” he says. Withholding the names, he says, can put innocent people in harm’s way because others will start to guess who the “42-year-old” really is. Is it my neighbor? He is 42! Then the neighbor has been made into a suspect, because the real suspect was being protected by the media.

The Swedish attorney general needs to take some classes in how to fight crimes from the U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. For too long, Swedish police, courts and justices have been too lenient. It is time for Swedish officials to step up to protect its people and stop protecting the criminals.


Anne Sofie said...

You have a point, on sentimental grounds, but I think there are a few aspects you left out. When a person is just suspected of having committed a crime - is it really right to publish his or her name? Remember the first person suspect of murdering former Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Anna Lindh - he was innocent. Yet several papers published.

And when the right person is arrested - what's the point in publishing? Society is safe as long as the person is behind bars. He or she might have a family. Are parents, husbands, wives, children to be punished indirectly because they are related to a criminal? Because they are punished by the talk in the neighbourhood, in school and so on.

And is publishing really a way to fight crime, as you say? How? Please explain!

In the case of the 10-year-old, she could have been saved - by efficient police work! Some years ago someone called the police and told that the 42-year-old might be the one who murdered a woman some years earlier. The police didn't do anything about it!

Finally, our justice is based on the Christian principle of forgiving. That is, when released, a person will have the chance to start anew, not being forever recognised as a criminal.

I agree some crimes/criminals are more complicated in that the crime is terrifying and/or the criminal is likely to repeat his/her crime. Like pedophiles. On the other hand, during the last few years a couple of men sentenced and imprisoned have turned out to be innocent. Yes. They have been framed by pathologically lying young girls. Courts didn't realise.

So the issue is not simple. I certainly do not agree that the media is to judge people in publishing suspects' names. At least they should be taken to court first and be proved guilty. And even then...

The only reason to publish, as I see it (as journalist and media teacher), is if a convict or clearly identified suspect reckoned to be dangerous is on the run. Then there is a reason to warn the public.

Vickan said...

Because of lack of time right now I will focus on responding to just one point...

The point in publishing a person's name even after he or she has been arrested is so that people can be warned of what possible crimes this person can commit. Take drunken driving, for example. At our newspaper, we publish all drunken driving arrests in our area - even if the editor herself should be arrested.

People constantly call us and ask that we leave their name, their son's name, their husband's name etc. out of the paper. Our editor's response? "You should have thought about that before you got in the car."

Sometimes people need a wake-up call. If they won't get it from the police, perhaps they'll get it when their name appears in the paper.

Vickan said...

P.S. I, too, believe efficient police work is needed. I also believe this is lacking in Sweden right now.