Centre for Social Studies highlights media influence on the presumption of innocence in Portugal

Image: Carles Rabada (Unsplash)

The Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra, through its Permanent Observatory for Justice (OPJ), under the contract signed with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has just released the results of another study on the promotion and protection of fundamental rights in Portugal.

In this sense, CES/OPJ prepared the Portuguese contribution to the EU report «Presumption of innocence and related rights - Professional perspectives» that the FRA produced [REFER HERE] and which seeks to assess the implementation of Directive (EU) 2016/343, concerning the reinforcement of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and the right to be present at trial in criminal proceedings in the Member States.

The CES/OPJ team, consisting of researchers Conceição Gomes, Paula Fernando, Carolina Carvalho and Marina Henriques, developed the report on Portugal [REFER HERE], whose information is based on the results of interviews with judicial and prosecutorial magistrates, lawyers and security forces officers, as well as in-depth documentary research and two case studies.

The results of the research on Portugal, according to the interviewees, point to an overall positive assessment of the legal framework that guarantees the protection of the presumption of innocence, recognising it as a generally accepted principle and embodied in the daily practice of the criminal justice system in Portugal.

Nonetheless, they call attention to factors that hinder the application of the principle of presumption of innocence, some of which affect more the media processes and others the routine processes. Among those that affect both, but particularly the former, are the media coverage of justice and the pressure of public opinion on the justice system. In other words, although the role of the media in the public scrutiny of the criminal justice system and in the improvement of its performance is recognised, the negative effects of the mediatisation of justice and the way suspects and accused persons are presented and exposed in the press, especially on television, undermining the principle of presumption of innocence in the eyes of public opinion, are also emphasised.
The study points out that it is urgent to provide better training in the area of fundamental rights, not only to judicial professionals (judges and prosecutors) and lawyers, but also to journalists.

The study also alerts to the challenges posed to the adequate provision of information to defendants about their rights, which weakens their effective exercise. The emphasis is placed on the imperceptibility of the transmitted information, with relevant effects on the proper understanding of the legal consequences of some acts, such as the possibility of trial in absentia in the case of non-appearance of an accused person who has validly served a statement of identity and residence. The interviewees give examples of how the current system allows for the trial of an accused without his or her actual knowledge in advance. The study also highlights the greater vulnerability in which defendants who do not speak Portuguese are placed. Although the effort made by police forces to translate the rights of defendants into different languages is recognised, the interviewees highlight the poor quality of translations in general and the lack of conditions in the courts to have a quick and effective translation service.

This partnership between CES/OPJ and the FRA has assumed enormous relevance in systematic research on various themes related to the promotion and protection of fundamental rights in Portugal, and has become possible with the integration of CES/OPJ within FRANET, the FRA's multidisciplinary research network for the period between 2019 and 2021. This participation has been a permanent stimulus to collect and analyse data regarding the main challenges faced by the European Union, in particular in Portugal, in terms of fundamental rights, contributing to the Agency's comparative analyses, published in particular in the annual reports. Topics such as racism, xenophobia, migration, hate speech or access to justice have been addressed throughout this period.