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Europe: The Press And Privacy--The Scandanavian Example

  • Anthony Georgieff

Copenhagen, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - In Scandinavia, as elsewhere in the West, the right of an individual to privacy versus the freedom of the press to report news is a contentious issue. Constitutions in Sweden, Norway and Denmark protect each country's press freedoms, with the Swedish example -- dating back to 1766 -- being the oldest in the world.

At the same time, because all three nations are monarchies, members of their royal families and their friends have for years been a constant focus of attention for many journalists.

Yet in the wake of Princess Diana's death in Paris, in which some photo-journalists have been implicated, most Scandinavian analysts rule out the possibility of a similar incident occurring in their countries.

The analysts acknowledge that Scandinavian tabloids will, like their counterparts elsewhere, pay huge sums of money for sensational stories involving royal personalities or other celebrities. They acknowledge, too, that Scandinavian publics are as fascinated by these stories as other Western newspaper readers. But they say that because of an elaborate and largely self-imposed system of checks and balances, Scandinavian journalists -- including photo-journalists-- do not usually trespass on widely defined moral, ethic and legal boundaries designed to leave a person, including a public person, in peace.

The broad Scandinavian system that protects a person's right to privacy has three components: self-regulation by journalists, their observing of professional codes of conduct, and the possibility of legal recourse in the event the boundaries are crossed. Generally, hounding or furtive photography of celebrities is allowed only if it seen to serve the legitimate interests of the public at large. In determining what those legitimate interests are, a lot is left to simple common sense -- a loose but very Scandinavian notion of how to go about things. In any case, since court cases for invasion of privacy are relatively rare, the system clearly works.

For a Scandinavian who believes his privacy has been invaded or that he has been libeled, there are basically three ways for him to respond. His first recourse is the right of reply, which, with very few exceptions, is strictly observed by the Scandinavian press. Most libel or defamation suits are settled at this stage.

But if a person still feels that justice has not been done to his complaint, he can take his case to a public body known as a press council. The council is usually composed of journalists, editors and public figures who are considered neutral. It is only an advisory board, with no legal but great moral authority.

Finally, if an individual so wishes, he can take his complaint against the press to court. In Sweden, such cases are tried by juries -- a departure from the normal Swedish judicial process. Only a small fraction of such cases in Sweden are decided in favor of the plaintiff, and a plaintiff who loses a suit can be ordered to pay the legal costs.

Denmark has a higher incidence of such cases that reach the courts, in part because its press council was founded only five years ago, while the Swedish one has existed for more than 80 years. Denmark also has a specific law on privacy which deals directly with a photographer's rights. Significantly, the law does not differentiate between "public" and "private" persons, thereby insuring that all citizens enjoy the same rights.

Under Danish privacy laws, photographing on private property is allowed only with the consent of the property owner and the individual being photographed. This rule also applies to using telephoto lens that allow a photographer to stand on public property while zooming in onto private property. If the event takes place in public, a photographer is allowed to take whatever pictures he wants -- provided the photos are only for private use. Should the photographs be used in any commercial way, including publication, the consent of the photographed individual is needed.

Restrictive as it may seem, the Danish law does not in practice impose substantial curbs on the press. That's because only rarely do Danes take serious action against a newspaper because of the kind of pictures it publishes. Similarly, even though a Danish publication cannot be punished legally by the country's press council, most newspapers comply with its recommendations.

As in the other Scandinavian countries, the Danish press fears that if it goes too far, new and harsher privacy laws will be introduced. That, too, is "common sense" in the Scandinavian way.