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Reforms to protect media freedom after a journalist was convicted for a report about extremists

Jersild v. Denmark  | 1994

Reforms to protect media freedom after a journalist was convicted for a report about extremists

The punishment of a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest and should not be envisaged unless there are particularly strong reasons for doing so.

Judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, 23rd September 1994

Background

Jens Jersild is a journalist. He filmed a news report about an extremist youth group in Denmark. The report aimed to highlight the problem of racism, focusing on individuals, their mentality and social background. In the report, extremists made highly insulting remarks about ethnic minorities. There was then an interview with a local social worker, who linked the youths’ racist attitudes to a lack of economic opportunities and a criminal environment.

Mr Jersild was convicted of helping to spread racist remarks. He was fined 1,000 Danish kroner.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The court found that the report had sought to expose and analyse individuals who represented a social problem. It had not sought to spread racist values, but instead drew public attention to a matter of wide concern, whilst presenting the racists as antisocial extremists.

There may be some cases where violent hate speech must be punished. However, in the circumstances, Mr Jersild’s conviction for his work had been disproportionate and violated his right to free speech.

Follow-up

In 1994 Denmark’s Supreme Court applied Strasbourg case law to cases concerning media freedom. Together with new legislation, this increased the power of the Danish courts to protect journalists’ free speech.

The criminal case against Mr Jersild was reopened.