Court says German judge was right to ban photos of man who butchered his parents

by Emil Weber

The Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) backed on Thursday a domestic German judge for barring the media from publishing the identifiable photograph of a man who was alleged to have murdered his parents unless he was proved guilty.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A 28 year old was arrested in 2010 and was charged with "killing his parents, dismembering their bodies, burning some of the parts, flushing others down the toilet and disposing of the rest by putting them in barrels". He had admitted the crime and several regional newspapers published the story, including an older photo of the alleged showing him as a younger man. He had also been psychiatrically assessed as suffering from "schizoid personality disorder".

When in 2011 the proceedings began at the Potsdam Regional Court to establish justice on the case, the presiding judge ordered registered media to publish only unidentified photographs of the defendant prior to the final ruling.

RTL television and Axel Springer contested the order, arguing that unpixeletated pictures were already published by newspapers. Later, they pointed to the fact that the defendant had already admitted the charges.

The judge explained his decision in writing to the media objections, arguing that the interests protecting personal privacy outweighed the public interest in being informed and upheld the decision. Eventually, the defendant was convicted for the murders.

Reports on the proceedings [...] focused primarily on satisfying public demand for sensationalist stories

After RTL and Axel Springer lodged the case at ECtHR in 2012, the German government argued it was obvious that "reports on the proceedings [...] focused primarily on satisfying public demand for sensationalist stories about the gruesome details of the crime".

The Fifth Section judgment on Thursday found that the balancing of the interests between private life and public interest on the case was correct, emphasising that the judge "chose the least restrictive of several possible measures".

Pondering the public interest, the ECtHR assessed that the physical appearance of the person charged with murder could not have “contributed significantly to the debate on the case”. It said the crime took place “following a private dispute and in a domestic setting” and “there were no indications that it had gained particular notoriety”.

According to the judgement, the photos published earlier by the newspapers were showing the defendant at a much younger age and therefore "his identity cannot be said to have been already known to the public". Furthermore, the court noted that the defendant had asked to be protected from being identified and did not consent to the taking of photographs.

In relation to the media argument that he had already admitted the charges, the judgement says that "the criminal court had to carefully review the confession in order to satisfy itself that it was accurate and reliable".

"In the present case, it (restriction) was also in the interest of safeguarding due process not to increase the psychological pressure (on the accused), in particular in view of his personality disorder", the judgment said.

Therefore, the ECtHR found that the court judgment was not “a particularly severe restriction on reporting”. 

“The taking of images as such was not limited. The order banned merely the publication of images from which (the defendant) could be identified. Any other reporting on the proceedings was not restricted”.

Axel Springer and RTL Television GmbH, application no. 51405/12. 21 September 2017

Creative Commons LicenseThis article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –