Police-journalists. Why a codex of mutual behavior

The Ossigeno’s proposal at the international meeting of experts held on the 28th September 2020 – What happens in Italy  

OSSIGENO – 29th September 2020 At the invitation of OSCE and together with 100 experts from various countries, Ossigeno per l’Informazione participated in the Annual Police Expert Meeting promoted by the OSCE, on the theme “Police and Media: Cooperation in the Public Interest”, held on the 28th September 2020 through networking. Alberto Spampinato and Luciana Borsatti presented Ossigeno’s analyses and its point of view by intervening in the afternoon session dedicated to tangible proposals to reduce and possibly eliminate incidents on the ground between police dealing with public order and journalists at work to document protests and other events of public interest, in particular those that take place in crisis situations and high-risk events.

The discussion was coordinated by Kristin Olson, advisor to the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir. Jurgen Heissel, the new director of the Representative’s office, in his speech noted among other things that, since “there is a right of peaceful assembly by citizens, journalists must be able to report on what happens at these rallies”.

Ambassador Luca Fratini, director of the OSCE Secretary General’s Office, focused on the need for greater interaction between police bodies and reporters, and specific training in this regard. Several interesting models of police intervention through social media to create a direct and interactive relationship with citizens, were illustrated. Antonio Nevado, head of the Madrid police press office, illustrated the Spanish model. The president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Steven Casstevens, noted that we are in a historic period in which the pressure on the police is increasing and not only in the US, from where the reverberations of an incident accident spread rapidly to other countries. Casstevens added that a regular communication relationship with the media, is therefore necessary, which produces trust among citizens. Jan Op Gen Oorgh, of Europol, considered this collaboration as necessary in the interest of both parties and a direct police relationship with investigative journalists is essential.

Among the speakers, Mr. Martin Hoffman, of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and Sofia Verza, Research Fellow, Think-Tank Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa, illustrated the text of the Police-Journalist Code of Conduct (see here) which was developed in 2019 together with Ossigeno per l’Informazione and explained what steps are being taken in Germany to get it adopted by police.

Alberto Spampinato and Luciana Borsatti explained, according to the experience based on the multi-year monitoring of Ossigeno and its free legal aid office, that numerous incidents between journalists and police are due to ignorance of the limits of their respective roles and adequate training could make up for these. gaps. In the meantime, they added, it is necessary to provide, as Ossigeno does, concrete and adequate assistance to journalists who are victims of these incidents, because journalists are always the weakest party.

Below is the text of the speeches delivered by the president of Ossigeno per l’Informazione (Oxygen for Information) Alberto Spampinato and by Luciana Borsatti.

Ossigeno per l’Informazione (Oxygen for Information) is an independent observatory that conducts  a documentation of intimidation and threats to journalists and provides journalists who suffer from them a “peer support” service provided by highly experienced journalists . This support helps threatened journalists withstand attacks which, in most cases, come from individuals with strength, power and considerable resources.

For this activity, which is unique in Europe, Ossigeno per l’Informazione has also received praise from the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media. Over the last few years, Ossigeno per l’Informazione  has documented over 4,000 acts of violence and abuse which, in Italy, have prevented many journalists from freely exercising the right to correctly inform citizens.

This phenomenon was hitherto known only to the victims but the monitoring by Ossigeno has made it more widely known. However even today this phenomenon is not known sufficiently by institutions, by politicians and by public opinion. Due to this lack of collective awareness, violence and other types of behaviour, however unjustifiable, towards journalists are widely tolerated and often go unpunished. This is very harmful not only to the journalists who are attacked, but to all citizens who see their right to receive information hindered.

Some of these serious incidents are the responsibility of law enforcement; some of them  are very recent. This shows that the issue is highly topical.  Other organizations say that besides Italy it happens also in other countries. It is necessary and appropriate, therefore, to find ways to prevent these violations. But how? The best way is to seek to codify the correct behaviour of police officers towards journalists. Journalists too should probably accept some rules of conduct that respect the difficult task entrusted to the police although it is also true that journalists are always the weakest and least protected party in these incidents. Therefore Ossigeno provides assistance to journalists who suffer these incidents, including legal aid, so that they can defend themselves.

The most serious case among those dealt with recently is undoubtedly that of the journalist Stefano Origone who on the 23rd May 2019 in Genoa was beaten by police officers while following a protest demonstration for his newspaper “La Repubblica”. This reporter suffered irreversible physical injury. The trial of  the agents who attacked him will take place next October. Ossigeno has filed a civil action and also, together with Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), bears the expenses for the civil action of the journalist attacked.

Another incident that took place on the 10th December 2019 in Rome involved a journalist stopped by the municipal police while legitimately filming video in a public street. The journalist had refused to cancel the footage he had taken.

Another very significant incident occurred on May 31st  2017 near Rome, in Sperlonga, where police officers ousted journalists who were following, from a public road, the judicial seizure of an illegal property of which the mayor was co-owner . The reporters were sent away because some people did not want them to record the scene and had threatened to attack them. Ossigeno pointed out that instead those responsible for public order should have protected the journalists.

Other journalists have faced libel trials for posting erroneous information disseminated by the police and then incorrectly rectified by the police.

These episodes demonstrate that in Italy many members of the police force do not know well their duties or the right to information in the name of which journalists do their work. They neither know it nor take it into account as they should.

Ossigeno had, therefore, participated together with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) in the drafting of the police-journalist code of conduct illustrated by Martin Hoffman and supports the initiatives to ensure that it is adopted in the various countries by mutual consent. 

In particular, Ossigeno deems it necessary to organize training courses to raise awareness of the right to information and the limits that the law imposes on police officers towards journalists who are following events of public interest.

The incidents between police officers engaged in public order activities and journalists engaged in informing citizens, carrying out a service of undoubted public service, are one of the indicators of the state of health of democracy and of the effective implementation of the rule of law. Many of these incidents are due to a real ignorance both on the part of police officers and journalists of their duties and the limits of their skills and their prerogatives. This type of incident  can be minimised if not eliminated with ad hoc training courses in which police and journalists participate and should be part of the professional training programs. The trials of police officers accused of unjustifiable attacks on journalists provide major opportunities both to bring this issue to public attention and to promote the proposal to adopt shared codes of conduct among the police forces and journalists’ organizations along  the model. of the code proposed by Ossigeno together with other organizations. ASP – LB (wt)

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