Legal systems

How French and U.S. laws affect Strauss-Kahn news coverage

Within days of the arrest of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on attempted rape and sexual abuse charges, details about the alleged victim appeared in publications around the world.

At first, the facts were sparse. It was clear she was a 32-year-old New York hotel maid. But within days, the woman´s name and photo were published in France and could easily be found through Internet search engines. Le Journal du Dimanche -- a French weekly newspaper -- ran a front-page story complete with her name and photo, and French reporters camped outside her New York home.

In the United States, however, details about the victim in the press were limited. It was only after more than a week of news stories that some media organizations, including Reuters, ran interviews with the maid´s family, and the New York Post published a photo of them. So far, a self-imposed U.S. media convention to protect the name of the victim is still in place.

The difference in how the media in the United States and in France have approached the alleged victim so far underscores the divide that exists between the two countries, both in their media cultures and their legal systems.

The American justice system has its roots in British common law and relies heavily on the jury system and an adversarial relationship between defense and prosecution. France, meanwhile, bases its law on the Napoleonic code, which offers suspects much more privacy, rarely involves a jury and puts an investigating magistrate in charge of collecting evidence for both the defense and prosecution.

Law, American style

In the United States, an organized effort to protect rape victims got its start as part of the broader feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s. It was spurred by concerns among women´s rights advocates about systemic underreporting of rape, and how rape victims were treated by the police, the government and the press. The federal government responded by directing funding to rape-crisis hot lines and expanding the development of domestic-violence shelters. A variety of state and federal rape shield laws, which limited the introduction into court of information about a victim´s prior sex life, were introduced.

"What you saw was both legal change and social change around rape law and you saw an increased sensitivity in terms of how prosecutors and police deal with allegations of rape," said Michelle Anderson, dean of CUNY Law School in Queens, New York.

Privacy laws that prohibited government employees, such as police and prosecutors, from releasing the identities of rape victims, were also introduced.

The same groups that advocated for rape victims helped persuade the press to adopt policies that kept rape victims´ names a secret. The agreements, however, are a courtesy, not enforceable by law, because of the First Amendment right to free speech.

That means the silence does not always last for long, especially if high-profile defendants are involved. In those cases, the victims are sometimes identified, first in the tabloid press, and then in the general media. Depending on the outlet, the victim can be portrayed in a negative light.

The French difference

In France, the treatment of rape victims has followed a different path. After the feminist movement of the 1960s, public concern about sexual violence receded until about 10 years ago. That coincided with an increase in crimes against young women in some of the poorer areas in France, according to Christophe Regnard, president of France´s largest union of magistrates, which includes judges and prosecutors.

The development spurred an anti-rape government campaign that dispersed information, created crisis telephone lines and domestic-violence shelters, he said, similar to what exists in the United States. It also led to a government law that prohibited prosecutors and judges from releasing information about the victim to the press.

But that law is infrequently enforced because information tends to leak out, and it is difficult to identify the source. The facts that do make it into the media tend to be simple, such as the accuser´s name, age and nationality, Regnard said. Sometimes photographs are also published. French reports typically shy away from salacious or accusatory details about the victim because the victims have much stronger legal protections than the press does. Often the victim will speak to the press herself.

In the Strauss-Kahn case, a few other factors have come into play. With events unfolding on American rather than French soil, it has been easier for the French media to not identify with the maid, said Antoine Garapon, director of the Institute for the Study of Justice, in Paris.

Also, in part because the two justice systems are so different, some French citizens believe that Strauss-Kahn is being treated unfairly in the United States. Soon after his arrest, many newspaper editorials expressed outrage that the former International Monetary Fund chief was subjected to a perp walk in handcuffs -- something that is illegal in France -- and Strauss-Kahn, considered a likely presidential candidate before this case erupted, continues to be viewed positively by the French. While his popularity ratings have fallen, they hover above those of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Similar results

Yet in other ways, the French media have strayed little from typical coverage of rape cases with high-profile defendants. The alleged victim was identified almost immediately, and her photograph was splashed everywhere. But her character was not assaulted as it was.

The most detailed story about the maid -- in Le Journal du Dimanche -- described her life and family. An anonymous quote from a neighbor described her as a "proud person" and talked about her demeanor, but there were no comments about outside sexual conduct.

"I think it was jarring and that made people feel closer to Strauss-Kahn than the victim. But that is changing," Regnard said, pointing to a move by feminists in France who have taken up the maid´s cause. A small group of French activists have organized a campaign to send her roses.

The handling of the Strauss-Kahn case in the press has not stopped more French women from coming forward with complaints. Georges Tron, a junior minister in Sarkozy´s government, resigned on Sunday after two women accused him of sexual harassment. One of the accusers said she was encouraged to speak up by Strauss-Kahn´s arrest.

Once a case makes it into a French courtroom, it is the judge who has the discretion to decide what evidence is pertinent or not. There are no rules like the rape shield laws in the United States, which limit the introduction of evidence. "The judge has to use his judgment about what´s going to be relevant and useful to finding out the truth," said Julie Suk, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.

In the United States, a rape victim does not typically have her own lawyer. Her interests are represented by the prosecutor. In France, the victim will have a lawyer whose job is to stand up if he or she believes the judge is doing something out of the ordinary, or mistreating the victim, said Garapon of the Institute for the Study of Justice.

While it appears that the systems are different, the results can echo each other. "You cannot attack the victim. You cannot blame the victim," Garapon said.

(Published by Reuters - May 31, 2011)

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