Reports on foreign suspects show “worrying trends”, making ex-plicit reference to the ethnicity of alleged perpetrators when they are foreigners, researchers said.

A National Media Report on media representation of suspects found media outlets consistently made explicit reference to the ethnicity and nationality of alleged perpetrators, particularly when they were not Maltese.

The report was carried out by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, organisation Fair Trials Europe, Human Rights House Zagreb Rights International Spain, the Vienna University and Aditus.

Headlines would frequently use nationality as the descriptor, for example “A Serb”, “Two Syrians” or “Russian with Maltese citizenship”, while no further descriptors are used for Maltese suspects. (Times of Malta has refrained from using nationalities of suspects in headlines in recent years).

The researchers also criticised the fact that suspects were filmed and photographed entering the building. The reports may influence the perception of suspects or accused as guilty, the study said.

May influence the perception of suspects

Despite the media being unauthorised to take pictures, several incidences in the year-long study were recorded in which suspects were led by the police and into the court building through the front doors, as opposed to the back entrance, the report noted.

The researchers pointed to the photos of Bojan Cmelik, who was charged with the murder of entrepreneur Hugo Chetcuti in July. The man has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“In one extreme example, a suspect was charged in court the day after he was arrested, wearing a white forensic suit with his hands handcuffed behind his back,” the report said.

“The suspect was made to walk in a busy pedestrian area, escorted by three police officers and enter the court through the front doors as opposed to through the back entrance – like in normal procedures,” the report noted.

Because the case was so prominent, the photos and footage have been repeatedly shown in print, online and television broadcasts.

Court regulations also prohibit people from taking any photograph or film during the hearing of any case in any hall, unless authorised, the report noted.

The researchers collected news reports on arrests of suspects or criminal court proceedings in printed newspapers, online portals and TV broadcasts in both Maltese and English. Stories were selected and coded by all project partners in their respective countries in accordance with the guidelines and procedures developed by the Vienna University team.