Reporting on justice – the central task of Austrian Justice Victim Assistance

Why Justice Reporting

Journalism that works for the survival of democracy must strengthen the liberal constitutional state. And this can only be done with serious criticism. And curiosity. And system.

“Where one throws the law out, the horror comes in at the door”,

says a Sudanese proverb.

“No one creates greater injustice than those, who does it in the form of justice.”

Plato wrote.

Two quotes as a launch pad to briefly discuss the judiciary, the rule of law and the role of journalism.

Because the justice system reflects us

The fact that the Institute for Austrian Victim Assistance to the Judiciary focuses its report on general judicial issues is due to the fact that the social relevance of undesirable developments is increasing in court. Like dripping resin enclosing an insect: Court trials are a well-documented, time-consuming snapshot of ordinary life. And the jurisprudence: civilization that has become amber, continuously polished, shaped and embedded in the constitution. When combined to form a whole, it is the jewel of every successful community: as a functioning constitutional state.

In the dull splendour of this jewel we want to reflect society with our judicial reports. And thus sharpen the clear view of the judicial system, true to the dictator’s bon mot: the more one is reflected in precious stones, the greater the horror about oneself.

Because the rule of law needs us

So here comes work, you guessed it, after all the pleasure.

Because the judiciary must be criticised: For reasons of the liberal paradox alone, to trust the rule of law by mistrusting it – and to improve it through criticism and contradiction. In short: the classic civic attitude. As the Institute for Austrian Victim Assistance to the Judiciary, we feel obliged to do so. But it is also a matter of fundamental criticism against the erosion of the rule of law. Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear: With this sentence, politicians all over the world have been justifying surveillance and security laws since 11 September 2001. The result is a preventive state in which the boundaries between innocent and guilty, suspects and unsuspects are becoming increasingly blurred. And each and every one of us can become a risk factor that must be monitored, imprisoned and cared for preventively.

Because the justice system must be controlled: The trend towards preventive justice is not only evident in the fight against terrorism. Under the political battle cry of “cuddly justice” and with the support of the electorate, criminal justice and the penal system have also been tightened up in recent years.

And thus the wheel of time is turning back behind the achievements of the liberal revolution, which replaced the law of the more powerful with equality before law (at least in theory). The more relentless the judicial system, the more important its control becomes: along the principle of proportionality, the judges’ discretion in view.

Because the judiciary must be defended: Popular, emotionally plausible demands are being used worldwide and again in Europe to question complex constitutional principles – both on a small scale and in big politics, where international law is broken for wars and annexations. With the rise of authoritarian politics in democracy, arguments no longer count, but their implementation. Instead of facing up to the complexity, the propaganda is for harshness – so that something can finally change. And be it the Convention on Human Rights. Poland, for example, where the conservative government hastily passed laws through parliament that abolish the separation of powers, shows just how quickly a constitutional state can tip over into an unjust one. Or in Hungary, where politics has disempowered the constitutional court.


Because that’s what journalism is for.

The Institut für österreichische Justizopfer-Hilfe stands for the principle of the judicial public. In a constitutional state, the judicial public is the central principle for a democratically controlled judiciary. The Constitution states that “court hearings and the pronouncement of judgments are public”. And that is not without reason.

According to historical experience, the risk of abuse of state power is particularly high in the judiciary. The Romans have spoken the law in the marketplace, and everyone has been able to witness and watch. In the course of time, the judiciary abandoned the public and became a cabinet justice – a secret, unrestrained power of the state that put an end to the French Revolution. At the latest since the Enlightenment, jurisdiction should again be understood as a public process – actually.

In fact, the principle of the judicial public sphere is increasingly becoming a dead letter. One or two minor or major advances in the last thirty years – towards greater transparency, often fought for by female journalists – do not help to overcome this: the rule of law is moving back in the direction of secret justice. The problem is acute

Three factors are primarily responsible for this development and provide further reasons for the focus on justice:

Because the judiciary loves the secret: the judicial system has always believed that secrets are good, and also that things should remain under the lid. Many judges are bearers of intransparency. They can close many doors, drawers and folders with legal excuses, for example in the protection of personality or economic interests. Sometimes they do this without any right.

Because politicians are pushing for efficiency: since the introduction of the new Code of Criminal Procedure, a large proportion of all criminal charges have been settled by order of summary punishment – with the de facto exclusion of the public. In abridged proceedings, prosecutors are both prosecutors and judges. This must at least result in prosecutors and judges facing up to the public.

Because the media let their control function run its course: Female journalists play a decisive role in the fight for transparency. They have had many successes in implementing the principle of public access. This cannot detract from the fact that the judiciary does not receive the attention in the media that it should have as a third force. This begins in the editorial offices, where reports from courts count less than those from parliamentary debates. Under economic pressure, publishers continue to reduce court reporting. In some areas, court reporting is already virtually non-existent. And where they still exist, the judiciary is often reduced to spectacular individual cases.

As you can see, dear readers, there are six good reasons to make justice a priority topic.

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