Jersild v. Denmark

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01 Sep 1994


September 1994, Application No. 15890/89 (European Court of Human Rights)

Theme: Other content restrictions
Sub-Issues: Hate speech
Test: Importance of freedom of expression
Penalty: Criminal conviction
Decision: Violation of the right of freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR); twelve votes to seven
Jurisdiction: European Court of Human Rights: Denmark


The applicant, a journalist, conducted a radio interview with a group of young people calling themselves the greenjackets, about their racist views. During the interview the interviewees made many derogatory statements about black people. Following the broadcast of the interview, the applicant was charged and convicted of the offence of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist statements. He was sentenced to a fine.


There was an interference by a public authority with the applicant's right to freedom of expression; it was prescribed by law, and pursued a legitimate aim, namely the protection of the reputation or right of others.

Importance of freedom of expression

The Court noted the particular importance of combating racial discrimination. It was significant that the applicant did not make the statements himself but assisted in their dissemination in his capacity as a journalist for a news programme. Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democracy and is applicable to information which shocks or offends. The press plays an important role in a democracy; its duty is to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest and the public has a right to receive it. The press plays a vital role of public watchdog. These principles apply equally to the audio-visual media. In considering the duties and responsibilities of a journalist, the potential impact of the medium concerned is an important factor; the audio-visual media have a more immediate and powerful effect than the print media does. The Court stated:

News reporting based on interviews, whether edited or not, constitutes one of the most important means whereby the press is able to play its vital role as public watchdog. 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. (para. 35)

The Court took account of the manner in which the feature was prepared, its contents, the context in which it was broadcast and the purpose of the programme. It accepted as relevant reasons for the interference the fact that the applicant had taken the initiative to make the feature and had edited it to include the racist statements.

Hate speech

However, it was relevant that the feature was preceded by an introduction which identified the purpose of the interview: to identify certain racist individuals and portray their mentality and social background. The purpose of the interview was to expose and analyse the views of the group of youths, dealing with aspects of a matter that was of great public concern; seen objectively, its purpose could not have been taken to propagate racist views. The programme was broadcast as part of a serious news programme intended for a well-informed audience. Therefore, the Court found there was a violation of the journalist's right to free expression under Article 10.

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