Print Media Treatment of Hate as an Aggravating Circumstance for Sentencing: A Case Study

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

Hate and bias crimes constitute a serious affront to individuals and groups who experience their deleterious affects. In addition to the harm they inflict upon the individual, hate-motivated activities also undermine the societal goals of promoting a just, fair, equitable, and socially cohesive society. As we embark on a new century "…it is clear that there is no place for the divisions that hate brings about" (Hate and Bias Activity Roundtable, 2000: 2).

Since the early 1990s, the federal government, in consultation with community and non-governmental organisations, has attempted to find appropriate methods for combating hate-motivated activities. In 1995, Parliament introduced sentencing reforms designed to assist judges with sentencing decisions. Included in these reforms was a provision requiring that judges consider "bias or hate motivation" as an aggravating sentencing circumstance. Subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code, which came into force in September 1996, states that "evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or any other similar factor" shall be deemed an aggravating circumstance.

Since its inception, subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) has been cited in several judicial decisions across Canada.[2] To date, the most publicised of these cases has been R. v. Miloszewski.[3] In January 1998, Nirmal Singh Gill died following an attack in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Five men, described in the media as having links to White Power -a white supremacist skinhead group -were arrested, and subsequently convicted of manslaughterfor the incident.

In his judgement, British Columbia Provincial Court Judge William Stewart referred to subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code in sentencing the perpetrators for terms of 15 and 18 years imprisonment. In the sentencing decision, the court stated that subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) is: "more than simply a reaffirmation of the existing sentencing principles. It is a direction to sentencing judges to give substantial weight to the aggravating factors as the section now reflects the will of Canadians expressed by Parliament".[4]

Miloszewski attracted substantial coverage within the media, and particularly in the print media. In addition to reporting details about the crime and the sentencing decision, the print media characterised Miloszewski as a “landmark” case in terms of the cours application of the statutory aggravating circumstance. Despite this considerable media attention, there has been no attempt to analyse and discuss the print media coverage of this important case.

1.1 Purpose of Paper

The purpose of this paper is to report the findings from a case study analysis of newspaper coverage of Miloszewski. The paper explores the print media's portrayal of subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code, focusing on whether codification of the aggravating sentencing circumstance influenced newspaper reporting. In addition, the paper explores how the print media “made sense of” or interpreted the Miloszewski case, and represented the decision to readers. Most of the newspaper items did not focus solely on the aggravating sentencing circumstance, but instead on the offenders' link to white supremacist groups, the nature of the offence, and the court proceedings. Therefore, the second section examines how journalists conceptualised and constructed this case. In this respect, the newspaper coverage of the aggravating sentencing circumstance will be discussed within the context of the overall coverage of Miloszewski.

The paper addresses the following questions:

  • Has codification of the aggravating sentencing circumstance been recognised within the print media?
  • How was subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) characterised in the print media coverage of Miloszewski (both pre- and post-sentencing)?
  • How was Miloszewski portrayed within the print media?
  • What are the more general implications of the media portrayal of Miloszewski?

Why Examine Print Media Coverage of the Miloszewski case?

Many people receive their information about law and crime through exposure to television, radio and newspaper items (Ericson, Baranek and Chan, 1991: 17). In turn, the knowledge that the public gleans from various media sources contributes to their perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system. Referring to the sentencing process, Roberts and Cole (1999: 22) argue that "[t]he treatment of sentencing by the news media is important to understand, for it affects public opinion. Most people, criminal justice officials included, acquire information about sentencing from the media" (see also, Ericson et al., 1991: 17). Roberts and Cole's comments aptly apply to the use of the aggravating sentencing circumstance in Miloszewski. Moreover, they underscore the importance of conducting media analyses of crime-related stories to determine how the media contributes to the public's understanding of the law and the criminal justice system.

1.2 Methodology

The methodology employed within this paper includes a quantitative and qualitative component. A quantitative analysis was used to reveal patterns within the content of the newspaper items. A qualitative content analysis helped provide further understanding of the print media's reporting of Miloszewski and the aggravating sentencing circumstance.

Data Collection Strategy

Two databases were searched to locate newspaper items referring to the Miloszewski case: the News Desk Press Clippings database at the Department of Justice Canada and the Canadian NewsDisc database.[5] The search period was from January 1998 to June 2000.

Newspaper items included within this analysis represent a wide spectrum of print media coverage of Miloszewski. Although items were collected with respect to all aspects of the case (from incident to post-sentence), the majority of items emerged during the sentencing hearing -when the facts of the case were presented. Due to database/coverage limitations, the search of News Desk Press Clippings and NewsDisc could not have captured all items referring to this incident. A more comprehensive review would involve a detailed search of newspaper items on microfiche.

1.3 Chronology of Events

Before discussing the results, it would be helpful to provide a synopsis of key incidents and dates for readers not familiar with the Miloszewski case.

  • On January 4, 1998, 65 year old Nirmal Singh Gill was beaten and killed in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Mr. Gill, a caretaker who lived in a senior's residence on the temple grounds, was in the process of opening the temple for early-morning worshipers when the attack occurred.
  • On April 21, 1998, the police arrested five men, described in the media as having links with a white supremacist, skinhead group (known as White Power) for the incident and charged them with second degree murder.
  • On May 28, 1999, the five men arrested by police -Daniel Miloszewski, Robert Kluch, Radoslaw Synderek, Nathan Leblanc and Lee Nikkel -pled guilty to manslaughter.
  • September 27, 1999 marked the start of the sentencing hearing. Crown counsel argued that the five accused should be sentenced to life in prison because their crime was motivated by racist hatred. The case was precedent setting in that it marked the first major case before the courts in which the judge was asked to consider the aggravating sentencing circumstance - subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code.
  • On November 16, 1999, the five men who pled guilty to manslaughter were sentenced to 15 and 18 year terms of imprisonment (the sentence for each perpetrator varied depending on their involvement in the offence). The court relied on subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) in arriving at the sentence which it imposed.

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