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Newspaper’s free speech victory leads to reforms

Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas v. Norway  | 1999

Newspaper’s free speech victory leads to reforms

One factor of particular importance for the court’s determination in the present case is the essential function the press fulfils in a democratic society.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, May 1999

Background

In 1988 the local newspaper Bladet Tromsø published articles about a report written by a government seal hunting inspector. The report alleged that some hunters had broken seal hunting rules by killing four protected seals and skinning other seals alive.  

The crew of a ship sued the owners of the newspaper and its editor for defamation. The Norwegian courts ruled that the newspaper had relied too heavily on the government report, and that there was no additional proof for all of the allegations.

The court therefore ruled that the newspaper had defamed the hunters. Despite noting that the newspaper’s finances were under pressure, the court ordered it to pay 187,000 Norwegian kroner in damages and 136,342 kroner in costs.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court said that the ruling had breached the newspaper’s right to free speech.

The paper had also published a series of articles from the seal hunters’ perspective, and overall its coverage of the issue had been balanced. The two articles about alleged abuse had been part of the newspaper’s contribution to a wider debate of legitimate public concern.

The articles in question had been based on a government report, the accuracy of which had not been publicly questioned by the authorities. The newspaper had a right to consider the contents of a government report as reliable: otherwise the ability of the press to be a watchdog on matters of public interest may be undermined.

Making the newspaper liable for publishing articles about such a report had been a disproportionate interference with its right to free speech.

Follow-up

The newspaper’s owner and editor were awarded compensation, to reimburse them for the defamation damages and legal costs they had been made to pay.

Following this case and others, Norwegian law was developed to give greater protection to free speech.

In a judgment from 2000 the Norwegian Supreme Court adapted its case law, to apply the European court’s free speech principles to defamation claims.

In 2004, the Norwegian constitution was also changed to strengthen the constitutional protection of free speech in Norwegian law.