In his new article published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Dr Simon Cooper of Essex Law School examines the new relational accountabilities of Chief Constables, Police, and Crime Commissioners [PCCs] and Crime Panels [PCPs] in England and Wales.
Referring to a number of recent reports and reviews, the discussion initially focuses on the effectiveness of these relationships and, in particular, the inefficiency of PCPs.
Dr Cooper’s article develops current understanding, showing that PCPs may cause a new unforeseen consequence. Namely, the exercise of accountability and the governance of policing may be unusually reactive to the ‘one-to-one’ accountability relationship between PCCs and Chief Constables.
Such recommendations are made to strengthen the exercise of accountability and the governance of policing. Specifically, the Home Secretary is encouraged to review the Policing Protocol Order (2011) and issue a Memorandum of Understanding to ensure ‘effective, constructive working relationships’ are not just a quixotic pursuit but a practical reality that safeguards the governance of policing.
Dr Cooper’s research is all the more important in light of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services finding in 2022 that there is an ‘atmosphere of mistrust and fear’ between PCCs and Chief Constables and The Police Foundation reporting ‘a crisis of confidence’, recommending ‘root and branch reform.’
I have recently had the honour to be part of the panel of judges of the Aban Tribunal – a People’s Tribunal established by civil society to review evidence of atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of its crackdown on the mass protests that had engulfed Iran in November 2019, sparked by massive rises in fuel prices but fundamentally were about social and economic rights and governance in the country. Our judgment, in which we found that acts of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and persecution amounted to crimes against humanity, was released on 1 November 2022.
This was my first foray into the world of People’s Tribunals, a concept which originated with the Russell Tribunal, named after Bertand Russell. That was a process he initiated together with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other luminaries of the day to consider the American role in Vietnam. Since then, the People’s Tribunal concept has developed and evolved and many other tribunals have been established to consider a wide array of issues ranging from the coalition-led invasion into Iraq, the situation in Palestine, the situation in Kashmir, Japanese wartime practices related to sexual slavery, the treatment of refugees and migrants, the treatment of Uyghurs, climate change and the murder of journalists. And the list goes on.
People’s Tribunals tend to come into play when more traditional justice avenues are completely blocked or when the official narrative about what happened denies the space for other voices or perspectives. Either a regime has no interest in any kind of justice and will not be cajoled into a justice process. Or, there is a particular issue that is completely taboo in a country or which cannot be solved by bringing a case to court.
In the case of the Aban Tribunal, the Islamic Republic had authorised the violent crackdowns on protesters and in the aftermath of those events, had instituted a devastating campaign of intimidation against family members who had sought out information about how their loved ones had died or were calling out for justice. Authorities had also interrupted families’ burial rituals in order to deflect attention away from the many killings, preventing families from grieving their loved ones. Thus, there was no realistic prospect of domestic investigations or prosecutions of those responsible or any likelihood of an official acknowledgment of the wrongs done and the harms caused. Victims and witnesses, who faced significant risks of reprisals for their participation, testified, often by video link – with faces covered and voices distorted, from inside Iran. The opportunity to tell their stories to the world was one they could not pass up lightly.
People’s Tribunals are about drawing attention to problems that are not being solved by traditional courts, governments or others. These tribunals are intended to bring public attention to issues not sufficiently in the public domain; to build solidarity with victims; to provide some kind of ritualised forum in which evidence is evaluated and the moral weight of a conclusion is given; to serve as a catalyst either for later formal justice processes or for changing public opinion or inspiring political debate.
What makes “justice” justice? This is perhaps a philosophical or sociological question, it can also be considered anthropologically – what do we turn to a justice system to do for us? And when do we see that it has the power to deliver?
Do we do a disservice to victims if justice is not sanctioned by a government; if the results of this “contrived” justice process cannot result in “real” sanctions?
In some cases, a People’s Tribunal might make it more difficult to have a formal justice process afterwards (but sometimes the opposite with be the case). But often “real justice” is symbolic – victims will take cases to human rights courts that they know will not get enforced; but often the reason why victims bring cases to court is for an official body to acknowledge that they were wronged and that they suffered. It is important that there is official recognition that what was done to them was wrong and that they – the victims, are not to blame.
As such, it becomes a question of whether the People’s Tribunal is imbued through the rituals it cloaks itself with, with enough internal legitimacy that victims and communities see it as having the power to do justice in the form of acknowledgement.
In some cases, it will be important for the judges of People’s Tribunals to don robes, to use gavels, and to seem otherworldly, and to speak the language of the courtroom for the victims to believe that the justice ritual they are part of is “real” and “meaningful”. This was the case with the Aban Tribunal – it was our determined belief, based on our understanding of the situation and speaking with civil society that there was this overwhelming sense of impunity – the total and absolute absence of justice. Donning the rituals of the courtroom was therefore an important part of our process.
In other cases, it is the formal justice system that is alienating and has failed victims in the past; the People’s Tribunal will be embraced and seen as legitimate only if it gets stuck in with the community in a more visceral way.
Can justice exist without a government legitimising it?
In most societies, justice is like a social contract – the justice process helps reinforce the rules by which the society lives by. Justice that is fair makes communities feel comfortable to abide by the rules. Everyone knows their place. In this sense, justice is something a government uses to reinforce the rule of law within the society. When state actors commit crimes, subjecting them to the same scrutiny, to the same justice, reinforces the sense that everyone plays by the same rules. When the state exempts itself from the rules, this undermines the rule of law in society.
Before embarking on this People’s Tribunal journey, I was convinced that for justice to be meaningful it had to be done by the decision-makers. As someone who has worked a lot on the issue of reparations or remedies to victims, – reparations were always something the government or the direct perpetrators should provide – indeed, this was part of their social contract, their role in reinforcing the rule of law. When civil society groups or development agencies started getting involved in reparations, my sense was always that they were just muddying the waters; reparations means something specific; it is special – it is about the wrongdoers acknowledging the wrongs and harms that they caused. So similarly, a justice process needed to be set up by governments because of the role governments play, or should play, in society, in reinforcing the rule of law.
But with People’s Tribunals, I realised, the idea that victims and civil society create their own framework of justice when justice is not otherwise going to happen, recognises that a government does not have the power to deny justice – this itself is really powerful. When the government does nothing, the victims, the civil society, the international community say no – that is not alright; we deserve justice; if you won’t provide it, we will not allow you to block it for us; we will take matters into our own hands and create our own justice.
It recognises that justice as acknowledgement is a ritualised project, and it is not owned by governments.
The result can be very creative; participatory; and if done well, a really positive experience for victims that they wouldn’t get in a traditional courtroom.
How to avoid the accusation of Kangaroo Justice?
There will always be arguments that Peoples’ Tribunals are one-sided; that they are just a politically motivated tirade against a government. For any People’s Tribunal to have a positive effect, it must guard against this. It is the judges of the People’s Tribunal who need to control the process. They must give space for nuance, hear all possible arguments even if not all sides are participating, recognise that there are defence rights even if there are no accused. This is difficult, and not always as obvious as it should be.
The truth is never simple, the organisers of tribunals are advocates, with advocacy positions – it is important for judges/deciders of fact to be independent of that, to be as neutral as possible.
Another line of argument is that a Peoples’ Tribunal should not seek to resemble a court – the more they don the rituals of a court, but do not have the necessary checks and balances of a court, the more they veer towards kangaroo justice. However, one needs to consider the purpose of the People’s Tribunal – in some cases, it is set up precisely because the community has a real need for justice – and there is no accountability in the society – so becoming as “court-like” as possible is really important, for the victims and the ritual of the process.
For the Aban Tribunal, it was really important that we were a court – we wore robes, the witnesses were sworn in, the judges spoke in legalese and the judgment is a judicial ruling – but this obviously raises other challenges – we had to take special care about process, about fairness, about our own accountability.
People’s Tribunals play a really interesting part of the mix of justice processes. They are particularly important to adjudicate situations or issues which would not otherwise have benefited from adjudication. They also play an important role in expressing solidarity with victims and affected communities who often feel isolated in authoritative regimes.
The idea that justice comes only in one shape, or size, is evolving. This evolution is necessary in light of the many instances of absolute impunity around the world. But also, it can be very empowering and freeing to develop conceptions of justice that are centred on the needs of victims and communities.
It cites research by Dr. Cooper, from the School of Law, which showed that the power of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to remove Chief Constables from office is having a “corrosive” effect on policing and police accountability.
Drawing on Dr. Cooper’s research, which was published in The Criminal Law Review (Issue 4, 2020), the Strategic Review specifically highlights his finding that a vital independent review process, meant to safeguard against a compromised PCC wrongly removing a Chief Constable from office, has only been used once since 2012 and didn’t impact the decision.
The authors of the report note that “such untrammelled power in the hands of one person has created job insecurity throughout the Chief Constable rank and this in turn has led to increased churn and reduced tenure.”
Dr. Cooper said: “Policing is at an inflection point. The Strategic Review comes at a time when public confidence is low and policing is under pressure. The Strategic Review will help shape the future of policing.
“The interviews I conducted find the PCC’s power to remove Chief Constables has already compromised the independence of senior officers. As currently formulated, the PCC’s s. 38 power creates an environment in which it would be possible for a PCC – effectively a layperson – to command, overrule and potentially even control a Chief Constable. We urgently require a Select Committee inquiry to re-examine the PCC’s power to remove their Chief Constable.”
Dr. Cooper’s research was based on a series of interviews with PCCs, Chief Constables, and members of Police and Crime Panels (PCPs), as well as the person responsible for introducing the current system and one of the most senior figures in policing at a national level.
This post first appeared on the University of Essex’s news webpage and is reproduced on the ELR Blog with permission and thanks.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi (Mr. Al Mahdi) was brought to the International Criminal Court to stand trial for his involvement in the destruction of several historical and religious sites in Timbuktu (Mali) during an armed conflict in 2012. This was the first time in the history of international criminal justice that an individual was prosecuted for the destruction of cultural heritage alone.
Following his guilty plea and conviction in 2016, the case moved on to the reparations phase where the focus was that of redressing the harm caused to victims. Therein, the unprecedented nature of the Al Mahdi case led to an equally unprecedented question: who are the victims of cultural heritage destruction?
Drawing upon her personal involvement in the case as a Court-appointed expert, Dr. Marina Lostal, Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex, has published an article explaining how this question was resolved and the practical challenges it posed during the implementation phase.
The challenges encountered are labeled as ‘monumental’ because they had one thing in common: the amount of theoretical thinking and reflection that they deserved was inversely proportionate to the urgency with which they had to be addressed and the precedent they would establish. To surmount this, drawing from the author’s background, the Trust Fund for Victims turned to academia and consulted with scholars.
The article focuses on three of such challenges:
(i) whether ‘unborn children’ should be included in the pool of victims given that cultural heritage is meant to be preserved for the benefit of future generations;
(ii) what place women ought to occupy in the implementation of reparations, despite the customary practices of side-lining them; and
(iii) the decision of whether to memorialize events surrounding the crime.
On the latter point, the article introduces the concept of ‘restorative agency’, a working principle that was adopted in the context of memorialization measures to ensure that victims are given a platform to decide, not a decision.
Lastly, Dr. Lostal’s article provides a framework to demonstrate the level of complexity involved in the implementation of any Court-ordered reparations and reveals some of the work of the Trust Fund for Victims, one of the Court’s least comprehended creations.
Article full citation: Marina Lostal, Implementing Reparations in the Al Mahdi Case: A Story of Monumental Challenges in Timbuktu, Journal of International Criminal Justice, Volume 19, Issue 4, September 2021, pp. 831–853, https://doi.org/10.1093/jicj/mqab064
New research, based on exclusive interviews with high-ranking figures from across UK policing – including Chief Constables, PCCs, one of the most senior persons in policing and one of the persons involved with introducing PCCs – suggests a postcode lottery in police accountability. The calibre of individual PCCs is seen as the key factor in ensuring adequate oversight, with stark differences exposed between forces.
Dr. Simon Cooper, from the Essex Law School, gained unprecedented access to key figures from all sides, on the condition of their anonymity.
However, Dr. Cooper identifies a “significant anomaly”, with accountability dependent on the relative strengths of PCCs and Chief Constables and the relationship between the two. Success, in this respect, can be seen to “hinge on luck”.
Dr. Cooper said:
“These findings suggest a significant variation in how police accountability is administered around the country. While one Chief Constable described being regularly ‘grilled’ by their PCC, some Commissioners are seen as ill-equipped, ill-prepared and potentially ego-driven. The importance placed by the system on these single individuals suggests there is a real possibility that some Chief Constables are being held to account more effectively than others.”
One Chief Constable, identified as Chief Constable D, outlined the issues that exist when dealing with their elected PCC, contrasting it with the previous ‘tripartite’ structure, where Chief Constables would report to the Home Secretary and their local Police Authority:
“…there is a significant risk that the relationship (between PCC and CC) either becomes excessively hostile, excessively friendly or… there isn’t the balance, additional questioning or informing of the debate that a wider group would give. (…) Because of poor safeguards and governance arrangements it too quickly descends into personalities and subjectivity in which accountability becomes likeability, becomes re-electability. Accountability becomes all of those things it shouldn’t.”
Another Chief Constable, Chief Constable C, underlined the importance of the PCC-Chief Constable relationship, noting the impact of individual experience and characters:
“I have seen evidence of PCCs who are ill-equipped and ill-prepared and actually don’t have the skills to understand big organisations making sweeping statements and making assumptions about individuals without any basis whatsoever. I have also seen Chief Constables that do not want to adapt to a new way of working and will be very obstructive towards PCCs.”
Summarising the impact on oversight, Police and Crime Commissioner D asked:
“The question is can a PCC be played by a Chief Constable? They clearly could be and some I suspect are. I am quite sure that there are some Chief Constables who just pay lip service to their PCC.”
The current system was seen by some as placing an impractical burden on one individual. The lack of a ‘pool of different views’ limits opportunities for the PCC to moderate their thoughts and has the potential to leave the PCC either exposed or guided by advice from others, with no formal oversight role. PCC A commented:
“Presumably if it’s something they (the PCC) didn’t know a lot about they talk to a lot of people about it but you don’t see any of those conversations played out.”
In reality, one senior figure, Person Z, was left questioning the original design of the PCC system:
“For one person, even though they are elected, to replace the wisdom and contribution of 19 [Police Authority members] is a tall ask. There’s only one person [the PCC] providing scrutiny [of Chief Constables] and that’s a heavy responsibility, so in terms of scrutiny of course it’s a lot less. Palpably has it worked? No… I suspect PCCs might, in hindsight, be regarded as a blunder.”
Dr. Cooper’s findings suggest a need for the Home Secretary to review the Policing Protocol and for an Accountability Code of Practice to be issued. He said:
“This research encourages the Home Secretary to exercise their power and urgently review The Policing Protocol Order. In its current form, the PPO is overly broad, presumption-based, loosely-worded and generic, with a resulting impact on accountability.”
Dr. Cooper’s research is published at a time of a continuing debate on police accountability. The Police Foundation found a “crisis of confidence”, recommending “root and branch reform”, and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services recommended a “profound and far-reaching police reform” and there have been calls for a Royal Commission.
Dr. Cooper’s research also found that in some instances the PCC model is viewed favourably when contrasted with its forerunner, with the previous bureaucracy and resulting backlog replaced by a “single point of decision-making” and a greater “visibility” of the decision-making process at a local level.
Other interviewees, however, suggested such appearances could be deceptive. PCC E commented:
“We have gained in terms of visibility but lost in terms of detailed scrutiny that the Police Authority was capable of.”
Dr. Simon Cooper’s article titled ‘Police and Crime Commissioners: A Dislocated Expectation?’ was published in Vol. 15, Issue 3 of Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practiceand can be accessed via the publisher’s website here. The House of Commons report on PCCs, citing Dr. Cooper’s research (pp. 10-11), can be read here. The House of Lords report also citing his research (para. 1.3) can be read here.
This ELR post was updated on 10 November 2022 to reflect recent developments in the impact of Dr. Cooper’s research.
Digital reconstructions of crime scenes have been used more frequently in both domestic and international courts as technology becomes more developed and accessible to courtroom actors.
Though digital reconstructions can be beneficial, especially in the context of international criminal law, as they allow judges to visit crime scenes that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to travel to in person, there are inherent risks that come with the use of this novel type of evidence in a court of law.
Sarah’s article explores some key considerations which arise if digital reconstructions are to be used in international criminal courts and tribunals, with an emphasis on the rights of the accused and effects on victims and witnesses.
The article argues that in order for fair trial standards to be upheld and for international courts to fulfil their roles not just as prosecutors of crimes, but as seekers of truth and reconciliation, digital reconstructions need to be approached with caution and analysed through a critical eye.
Sarah will present her paper as part of the Launch Event for the JICJ Special Issue on New Technologies and the Investigation of International Crimes, which will be held virtually on 9 November 2021 at 15:30-17:00 GMT.
This event will bring the authors of articles in the special issue together, including Essex Law School’s Dr. Daragh Murray who also contributed to the same issue and served as one of its co-editors, for a discussion of their key insights on the future role of technology in accountability processes. Those interested in attending can register here.
For too long, Basque society remained petrified and silent
Ten years ago, on October 20, 2011, the Basque armed group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, “Basque Country and Freedom”) finally declared “a definitive cessation of its armed activity.” This was what Basque and Spanish societies had long been waiting for.
It would take them until 2018 to formalise their dissolution, but October 20 is marked in the calendar as a day of liberation, especially for those whose lives were at risk. The Basque Country was finally going to have the chance to become a free and “normal” society like any other.
Jesús Eguiguren, one of the tallest figures in Basque politics in recent decades, was also relieved. Days after ETA’s much-awaited declaration, when asked what normality would mean to him, he said: “For me, it means the freedom to eat pintxos in the Old Town” of Donostia-San Sebastian, my hometown. Because of being directly threatened by ETA for his political opposition to Basque independence, the old town had been a no-go area for Eguiguren, but also for thousands more.
ETA was formed in 1959, during the Franco era, with the goal of seeking self-determination and independence for the Basque Country. Since the late 1960s, ETA was responsible for more than 850 deaths in the Basque Country and other parts of Spain. This figure underestimates the pervasive sense of fear caused by ETA and its supporters. In the last 15 years of their existence, ETA, through extortion and threats, specifically targeted politicians, academics, police officers, journalists, and civil servants who disagreed with their totalitarian agenda. Approximately 3,300 men and women were forced to live with police escorts.
The Basque Country is a region with a strong national identity divided between the north of Spain and the southwest of France. With fewer than three million inhabitants, it’s hard not to have known someone who paid a high price for being who they were, sometimes the highest of all prices—their life. In my case, this included a primary schoolmate, whose father—a police officer—was killed by the armed group; a teacher in the same primary school whose husband, a journalist, was murdered; a sport’s teammate’s father, who reluctantly moved to Madrid after receiving serious threats; one of my university professors, and my friend and former boss, the Basque parliament’s high commissioner for human rights between 2004 and 2014, Iñigo Lamarca, whose name appeared in one of ETA’s hit lists.
A lot has changed in the Basque Country in the past 10 years. Nobody’s life is at risk as a result of their politics, and that is no mean feat. My nephew and nieces, who are 11 years old, are blissfully unaware of the environment of low-intensity violence that permeated society up to a decade ago.
Basque society is still working out a public memory about that time. Victims of ETA’s violence have received recognition from public institutions, but social recognition has been much slower, and more timid. In towns and communities where Basque independence was the preferred political choice, ETA suspects were often treated like heroes.At the same time, credible reports of police torture were systematically dismissed by the Spanish government, tarnishing the public image of the State and its institutions. Despite multiple reports from independent investigators and international human rights bodies, the official line was, and largely remains, that the torture allegations against the police were simply lies spread by terrorists—ETA members.
Spanish public authorities and a sizeable majority in Spanish society have a long way to go to recognise that torture and ill-treatment were an obnoxious part of the anti-terrorist strategy in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. As I explain in my new book Spain and its Achilles’ Heels: The Strong Foundations of a Country’s Weaknesses, these practices harmed the credibility of the police as a fully democratic institution and made life even more difficult for the officers who respected the rule of law.
In the 2000s, ETA was being cornered by the police, but the decline in popular support was a key reason why the group stopped their violence for good in 2011. In previous decades, ETA benefited from long periods of silence of large parts of Basque society who believed their discretion would keep them away from the attention of ETA and their informers. Outstanding exceptions must be noted, including the case of “Gesto Por la Paz” (“Gesture for Peace”), an organisation that convened silent rallies the day after each murder and on a weekly basis for 25 years, starting in 1986. It was a modest gesture that, nonetheless, required a large dose of bravery.
Over time, Basque society empowered itself to make it clear that ETA did not represent them. The sociological statistical survey of the Basque Country shows that fewer than 25 per cent of people totally rejected ETA in 1981, but that number went up to 60 per cent by 2000 and remained at that level for 10 more years, while ideological support for ETA was minimal in the 2000s (around 1-3 per cent).
The Basque Country has changed substantially for the better in a new spirit of calm, peace and rediscovered freedom. More time will be needed, however, to strengthen bridges and walk decisively towards reconciliation. Police officers, bodyguards, journalists and politicians were unjustly killed, and for too long the Basque society remained petrified.
In shifting public perception in Spain, a new film can potentially make a difference: Maixabel dramatizes the true story of Maixabel Lasa, a brave activist for peace, memory and reconciliation, whose husband was killed by ETA in 2000. A few years ago, Maixabel met face-to-face with the man who killed her husband. The killer had distanced himself from ETA in a difficult process of atonement.
Maixabel Lasa’s testimony is one of a handful of conversations during the last decade between ETA victims and repentant ETA members. Most of these meetings were held in private, but some of the participants are talking about their experience in schools, and conveying their emotions at other public events.
Other events have brought together victims of ETA, victims of GAL (state-sponsored terrorism of the 1980s), as well as victims of police torture. Also, pro-independence politicians have apologised for the damage they caused through their decades-long complicit silence.
Working out the past in a plural, inclusive and respectful way will take time, and the Basque Country only recently got rid of ETA’s yoke. Historical memory is a powerful reminder that freedom should not be taken for granted.
As my mum once said to me when talking about Basque peace and reconciliation, it’s shocking how quickly one gets used to normality, when people are not killed for their ideas.
This piece first appeared on Global Voices and is reproduced on our ELR blog under a Creative Commons Licence. The original post can be accessed here.
The interrelation of ecology and conflict has been the object of extensive study by political scientists and economists. From the contribution of natural resource ‘scarcity’ to violent unrest and possibly armed conflict; to resource ‘abundance’ as an incentive for initiating and prolonging armed struggles; to dysfunctional resource management and environmental degradation as an obstacle to peacebuilding, this literature has exerted a huge influence upon academic discussions and legal/policy developments.
While international law is often invoked as the solution to the socio-environmental challenges faced by conflict-affected countries, its relationship with the ecology of war and peace remains undertheorized. Drawing upon environmental justice perspectives and other theoretical traditions, the book unpacks and problematizes some of the assumptions that underlie the legal field.
Through an analysis of the practice of international courts, the United Nations Security Council, and truth commissions, the book shows how international law silences and even normalizes forms of structural and slow environmental violence (notably, uneven access and distribution of natural resources; less visible forms of violence associated with the environmental aftermath of wars).
This, in turn, jeopardizes the prospects of creating more peaceful societies, while perpetuating deeply rooted inequalities. Ultimately, the book urges us to imagine entirely different legal notions of justice, peace, and security in times of ecological disruption.
By drawing upon extra-legal fields of inquiry (e.g., the literature on environmental security, the political economy of civil wars, the resource curse, and environmental peacebuilding), the book strives to refine extant understandings of how international law conceptualizes and regulates the ‘environment’ before, during, and after armed conflict.
By engaging with some of the international legal order’s most pressing concerns – rising intra-state violence, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their interaction – the book opens intellectual spaces for rethinking current approaches to the ecological challenges of our hyperconnected world and their adverse impact on the most marginalized peoples. As such, it offers a critical companion work to related titles and, at the same time, pushes the research envelope further and in new directions.
The book will be of interest to academics and students across different disciplines, primarily international law, but also peace and conflict studies, political theory, and international relations. It will also prove useful as a reference for policymakers and practitioners working at the intersection of environmental issues, human rights, and peace and security within international organisations/tribunals, governmental departments, think thanks, and NGOs.
These included Recommendation 2 to develop a set of core statutory rights, with a statutory duty on those agencies listed in the Victims’ Code to ensure all their policies and practice are compliant; and Recommendation 25 to establish a single cross-criminal justice system complaints body for all victim complaints in respect of non-compliance with the Victims’ Code, which is responsible for the oversight of the handling and response to the complaint.
It is great to see how the November 2020 report has produced some very concrete impact and helped develop thinking around what The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales wants to see from a Victims Law.
From the exposure of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s crimes to the Westminster sexual harassment scandal, the #MeToo movement has in recent years spread around the world, empowering survivors of sexual violence to share their traumatic experiences on social and news media. It was not until January 2021, however, that the impact of the movement became apparent in Greece.
Talking in an online event about the protection of children in sports on the 14 January 2021, Greek Olympic medallist Sofia Bekatorou publicly accused the vice president of the Hellenic Sailing Federation of sexually assaulting her in 1998. Bekatorou’s allegations led to the emergence of the hashtag #metinSofia (i.e. with Sofia) on Twitter with many other athletes but also actresses, singers and influencers following her example and reporting their own experiences of physical and/or psychological victimisation by powerful men (including famous actor Giorgos Kimoulis as well as actor and former Deputy Minister of Social Security Pavlos Haikalis). It was no surprise that, due to the celebrity status of many of the alleged victims and perpetrators, such claims dominated the Greek news agenda during these past two months alongside stories about the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February 2020, the Greek #MeToo movement acquired even greater momentum with clear political ramifications when former director of Greece’s National Theatre Dimitris Lignadis was remanded over allegations of serial rape – some of which involved underage victims. Responding to criticisms for appointing Lignadis, culture minister Lina Mendoni stated that he is a ‘dangerous man’ who ‘deceived her’ and ‘with deep acting talent tried to convince her that he had nothing to do with all this’. At the same time, Lignadis’ defence attorney Alexis Kougias dismissed the allegations against his client as a ‘crude fabrication’ made by ‘professional homosexuals’.
The news media’s involvement in Lignadis’ and all the other cases forming part of the Greek #MeToo movement constitutes an indicative example of what Greer and McLaughlin (2010: 27) define as a trial-by-media: ‘a dynamic, impact-driven, news media-led process by which individuals – who may or may not be publicly known – are tried and sentenced in the “court of public opinion”.’ In the era of 24/7 news, media seek to perform an alternative function of ‘justice’ which runs parallel to that administered by formal institutional authorities. There is an undeniable benefit in shedding light to such historic cases of sexual violence and thereby encouraging an honest, free-from-stigma discussion around the issue. Despite its belated emergence (or possibly because of it) the Greek #MeToo appears to extend the boundaries of the movement even further by also placing emphasis on cases of gender-based workplace bullying as well as male victimisation.
The shortcomings of this ‘trial-by-media’, however, including its impact on the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the consequent reputational damage and the risk of vigilantism also need to be taken into consideration. In the context of the ongoing discussion on the allegations made, journalistic objectivity and due process can easily give way to moralising, sensationalist speculation about the motives and actions of the accused who are assumed to be ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and therefore deserving to be ‘named and shamed’.
In addition, the homophobic dimension of some of the relevant mediated discourse also need to be highlighted. From the Greek state television censoring a gay kiss from an episode of Downton Abbey to bishop Amvrosios publicly urging people to ‘spit on gays’ because they are ‘freaks of nature’ and the killing of LGBT+ activist Zak Kostopoulos by the police, there is still a lot of progress to be made in order for LGBT+ people to achieve equal rights in Greek society. This is something that became even more apparent with the recent rise of the Greek #MeToo.
Such stories clearly associate homosexuality with paedophilia, creating a ‘signification spiral’ (Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, 1978) in the context of which both behaviours are constructed as sexual ‘perversions’. Such an association is intrinsically linked to and largely legitimised by the patriarchal discourse used by some of the accused to explain their actions – for example, Haikalis’ claim that he is an ‘old-fashioned alpha male’ – which also favours a view of non-heterosexual masculinities as deviant and socially reprehensible (Buchbinder, Studying Men and Masculinities, 2013).
There is extensive research on moral panics and the media’s role in marginalising social groups, portraying them as ‘folk devils’ who allegedly behave in ways that pose a risk towards society’s dominant moral values (Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 2002). The aforementioned homophobic reporting can largely be made sense of within this framework. What is disconcerting, however, in the case of Greek media is not merely the exposure but most importantly the limited protection offered to LGBT+ people against such prejudicial and sensational media coverage on a regulatory level.
On the one hand, ESIEA, which is main trade union of Greek journalists based in Athens, provides in its Ethical Guidelines for Journalists (in Greek) that news reporting should be free from ‘discrimination based on nationality, sex, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, financial situation and social status’ [Article 2(a)]. Although discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation could in principle fall under the broad category of ‘social status’, it could be argued that the Code’s failure to refer explicitly to this particular form of discrimination creates an ambiguity which allows cases of homophobic reporting like those mentioned earlier to emerge without any threat of serious sanctions.
On the other hand, the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRT), which is the main regulator for public and private broadcast Greek media, seemingly adopts a more inclusive approach in its Code of Ethics for News and other Current Affairs and Political Programmes (in Greek): Article 4.1 of the Code specifically states that discriminatory reporting based on sexual orientation is not allowed while Article 4.2, which prohibits demeaning comments towards ‘ethnic and religious minorities and other vulnerable or powerless social groups’ (emphasis added), potentially covers sexual minorities too even if these are not explicitly mentioned.
This prima facie protection from discriminatory reporting offered by the NCRT Code to LGBT+ people is contradicted by the Council’s regulatory practice which has on several occasions led LGBT+ supporters to accuse NCRT of institutional homophobia and transphobia. For instance, in 2013, NCRT rejected (in Greek) the request of the Athens Pride organisers to air the event’s TV spot on all major Greek TV stations free of charge on the grounds that the spot ‘could not be described as one with a social message’.
Similarly, in 2010, NCRT imposed a fine of €20,000 on the Star Channel afternoon show Fotis and Maria Live for interviewing trans actress and author Betty Vakalidou based on the following rationale (emphasis added):
‘the issue of homosexuality (the sexual preference for individuals of the same sex) and of sex change with or without surgical intervention that was presented in the show constitutes a social issue and a reality that concerns only a small minority of people. It constitutes a condition that goes beyond the normal and, for that reason, it largely sounds strange to the underage viewer… The presentation of information about the sex life of homosexuals or transsexuals, about the sex change procedure and the feelings and experiences of the woman being interviewed, could possibly have a negative impact on underage viewers.’
Such discourse not only fails to protect LGBT+ people from discrimination but has the potential to add to their vulnerability and marginalisation even further by portraying them as ‘others’ who live outside the boundaries of the normal, heterosexual society. By prioritising a moralistic argument about how a discussion on LGBT+ issues might affect underage viewers, it also neglects the impact that prejudicial media portrayals or the lack of media representation can have on LGBT+ people’s mental well-being, self-image and aspirations. Positive LGBT+ representation in the news and entertainment media can play a key role in promoting social acceptance and tackling homophobic and transphobic violence. In a country like Greece where, according to a 2020 survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 73% of LGBTI individuals avoid holding hands in public out of fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed (one of the highest percentages among the 28 EU member states), it is profoundly disappointing and alarming that regulatory bodies like the NCRT fail to see the importance of responsible media reporting in creating a more inclusive Greek society and thereby improving LGBT+ individuals’ quality of life.
Finally, it is worth noting that, in our multi-mediated world, those identified as ‘folk devils’ and their advocates can use different outlets to challenge their demonisation in mainstream media instead of being completely defenceless against it. Following Kougias’ statement about his client’s reputation being tarnished by ‘professional homosexuals’, several well-known public figures hastened to criticise the lawyer’s language on news and social media: songwriter Foivos Delivorias condemned (in Greek) Kougias’ attempt to associate homosexuality with paedophilia and rape while, in a sarcastic move, both he and journalist Elena Akrita changed their employment statuses on Facebook to ‘Employed at Professional Homosexuals’.
The power to resist the conservative ideology of traditional media, however, does not change the fact that more work is required by media professionals and the relevant authorities in order to approach and report on the complex issues raised by the #MeToo movement sensitively. The Greek #MeToo movement can be seen as a tipping point which has the potential to effect societal change by eliminating the stigma attached to those issues and encouraging an open dialogue around them. But, as shown by some of the news coverage in former National Theatre director Dimitris Lignadis’ case, more responsible reporting is needed for this potential to be materialised.
In an attempt to show it is taking these allegations seriously (and perhaps also to divert attention away from its own unforeseen implication in Lignadis’ scandal), the Greek government set up the website metoogreece.gr to provide victims with the contact details of relevant support services. Allegations of rape, sexual assault, paedophilia and bullying against Lignadis and other powerful men of the Greek show business still dominate the Greek media at the time of writing. The exact number of victims and perpetrators, the actual impact of the ongoing ‘trial-by-media’ on due process and ultimately the extent to which the Greek #MeToo movement will succeed in rocking the hetero-patriarchal foundations of the Greek society remain to be seen.