Should a Court be able to prevent the identity of a convicted criminal from being made public?

Posted on: 09 Nov 2016

Category: Articles

One of the most high-profile cases in 2016 involved a sports coach of a girls-only volleyball team who admitted to have spied on his students by placing a camera in their changing room. Apart from the crime itself, one of the most controversial and anger-provoking parts of the case included the fact that the perpetrator, who both admitted the offence and was sentenced for it, has been able to benefit from anonymity as the courts have placed a ban on the publication of his name.

Many have been left questioning: who does this ban protect? Also, what are the pros and cons of providing anonymity for someone who has been found guilty of a crime?

Usually, the main aim behind a Court’s order to impose a ban on the publication of an offender’s name is that of protecting the privacy of the victim and to protect him/her from embarrassment, additional trauma, internet trolls or negative press attention. This type of gagging order is predominantly used in cases of a sexual or abusive nature, as well as with sensitive cases where the victims are children or vulnerable people.

In this instance, the man in question had admitted his fault and had also been sentenced –  yet the magistrate insisted on keeping his personal details a secret in an apparent bid to protect the identities of the 17 female victims.

Problems arose, however, when the media started to publish other intrinsic details about the case, for example:  the age bracket of the man, his profession, his place of work and his involvement with volleyball. The release of this information coupled with intense media coverage led to massive amounts of speculation as to who the perpetrator could be, as well as making the victims easily identifiable through a simple process of elimination. Any man that shared any similarities with the media’s description would immediately be shrouded in a veil of suspicion, potentially leading to false accusations and rumours about innocent parties.

It is a common practice for the courts, and subsequently the media, to publish the names of perpetrators of lesser crimes such as petty theft and pickpocketing – so why do the courts protect the identities of more serious offenders? The victims are, by their very nature, completely innocent- they have nothing to be ashamed of if their name did become public. Making the culprit’s identity known (once found guilty) in cases such as this, is arguably in the public interest.

A spokesperson for a local NGO, The Lisa Maria Foundation commented that:

 “The law abiding public and vulnerable groups cannot be put at risk from sex offenders as happened recently…The public must be informed as to who has been found guilty of a sex offence.”

Moreover, a very valid argument is that all sex offenders should be made to sign a sex offenders’ register. It has also been suggested that naming and shaming the offender in public could act as an effective deterrent which could possibly make others think carefully of the consequences before committing such an offence.

There is no doubt that in its decision, the Court has highly considered the protection of the victims, especially from any further violation or unnecessary publicity. Notwithstanding this, however, the magistrate must also take into consideration the wider implications of withholding the name of the accused. Perhaps, instead of the outright banning of a name, the courts should consider requesting the cooperation of the media in agreeing on what information should be published. Thus, one could still have published general information on the perpetrator, including, his age, sex and that he was a sports coach, whilst omitting specific information on the actual sport and specific job role.

On the other hand, they could consider following the example of The Netherlands where naming anyone involved in Court proceedings is prohibited but the media can publish one initial of their name e.g. ‘P’ or ‘K’. A policy such as this can be very beneficial in that it would provide sufficient information, thus preventing the possibility of falsely accusing an innocent party whilst also not directly identifying the actual person involved. Making careful considerations of the type of facts to be published can also help to mitigate the risk of causing reputational harm, and harassment to people who are mistakenly identified as the culprit.

In cases like this, both sides make good arguments and present valid pros and cons which make it difficult to arrive at a conclusion which would satisfy the legal, moral and ethical rights of all parties involved. What is clear is that because of Malta’s size, something needs to change and it is hoped that by looking to other countries policies and then adapting them to suit our small country, a solution can be found.