Journalists Hail 'Brilliant News for Press Freedom' After Danish Court Verdict

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today hailed the acquittal of three journalists in a controversial Danish case over press rights as “brilliant news for press freedom in a time of gloom and uncertainty.”

The IFJ says that the decision by the court that lifted the threat of jail hanging over Editor Niels Lunde and reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen of Berlingske Tidende newspaper should signal a European-wide fight-back against governmental and official pressure on journalists in a number of European Union countries in the past year.

The three journalists were charged with "publishing information illegally obtained by a third party" under Article 152-d of the Criminal Code for a story that exposed the Government’s lack of credible evidence for its decision to back the invasion of Iraq. If convicted, the journalists faced a possible six-month prison sentence.

A Danish court acquitted the three journalists today and said that the journalists were in fact fulfilling their role in society by reporting on a matter of public interest and that freedom of expression overruled any other consideration.

“This is brilliant news for press freedom,” said Aidan White General Secretary of the IFJ and its regional group the European Federation of Journalists.

“Questions should now be asked over how this prosecution came about in the first place and whether or not the government had a hand in bringing the case,” White said. “But for now we congratulate our Danish colleagues and welcome this sparkling development at a time when gloom and uncertainty has settled over much of journalism in Europe.”

The IFJ and EFJ have given full support to the Dansk Journalistforbund (Danish Union of Journalists), the Danish affiliate, in their support of the accused journalists.

“The fact that they were even prosecuted is an insult to free press and a severe blow to the Danish nation as a model country for democracy and freedom of speech. I hope that this acquittal is a strong signal that journalists should not be punished for doing their job,” said President of the Danish Union of Journalists Mogens Blicher Bjerregård in a statement.

During the trial of the Berlingske Tidende journalists, White gave evidence on their behalf and told the court that he was “astonished” that the case had been brought against them in the first place. The journalists had done no damage to Danish national security or endangered any soldiers. All they had done was embarrass the government, he said.

In February and March 2004, Bjerre and Larsen wrote a series of articles based on leaked reports from the Danish Defense Intelligence Service. The reports said there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction during Saddam Hussein's rule - one of the main reasons cited for the invasion led by the United States in 2003. In its justification of going to war a year earlier, the Danish government said it knew that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

The IFJ has welcomed the verdict as the first piece of good news after a series of setback for press freedom in Europe.

Last week two journalists were briefly jailed in the Netherlands when they refused to name their sources in a case against the agent who is suspected of leaking secret dossiers from the Dutch intelligence service to the underworld. Earlier this year, the Dutch government said it would stop its surveillance of journalist communications and the German government said it would remove spies that it had placed in newsrooms to stop leaks to the press. In the UK, the government has said it is planning to strengthen official secrecy laws to prevent whistleblowers from revealing information about government policy. Latvia, Ireland and Italy have also seen action, both legal and illegal, by officials trying to discover who journalists are talking to.

"We are calling for European countries to agree to a common position that “puts an end to legal uncertainty and dispels the intimidating atmosphere surrounding reporters when they carry out investigative work,” White said.

Click here to read a statement from the Danish Union of Journalists.

For more information contact the IFJ at +32 2 235 2207
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries worldwide