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Danish Journos To Appeal Fines for Exposing Superbug Spread

Danish defendants

Lawyer Tyge Trier (left) with journalists Nils Mulvad and Kjeld Hansen in court. Photo: Lone Hougaard.

Two Danish journalists, Kjeld Hansen and Nils Mulvad, released a story in October 2010 about the spread of pig-to-human infection, which subsequently led to four deaths.

The story from 2010 violated the Data Protection Act, according to the district court in Aarhus. On 22 May the presiding judge sentenced journalists Nils Mulvad and Kjeld Hansen each to a fine of 2.500 Danish kroner (about US$450).

Public interest was not large enough to report that people on one of the farms themselves were infected, according to the judge. It was too easy, he ruled, to identify these people, and their right to protection was higher than the public interest in knowing about the infection on the farm.

Lawyer: Shooting the Messenger

The judge concluded in the verdict that it was unnecessary for the story to mention the identity of the infected people. The judge also claimed that the journalists themselves said they did not need to report the names of the farms, but this is incorrect, Mulvad told Göteborg-Posten after the case. The whole idea of the story, he said, was to identify the farms as potential places for infection.

If the judgment stands, it is looking really grim for the freedom of the press in Denmark, Mulvad told the paper.

The lawyer for the two journalists, Tyge Trier, said he is disappointed and that the judgment is an example of shooting the messenger. The low penalty means the decision can be appealed only by special permission.

Journalists To Appeal 

After consideration, the two journalists have decided to try to appeal part of the verdict – most importantly on the level of anonymization that is necessary.

“We want the court to accept that what we have been publishing on the web since end of October 2010 is in the line with Danish law,” Mulvad explained.

Data Still on Web

According to Oluf Jørgensen, a media law expert at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, the verdict is unclear on the appropriate level of anonymity in public health reporting. He has recommended that the two journalists keep the information on infected farms open to the public and remove only the number of infected people on the farm.

“Actually, we can still publish the names of the farms after the verdict,” Mulvad said. “The verdict is not very clear, but after consultation with media law experts, we have decided to keep all information about the infected farms on the web, and only remove specific information on infected people, which might be regarded as not being anonymous enough.”

See the anonymized version of the original story.

Mulvad points out that not appealing the full verdict does not mean they agree with it. They still think it was necessary at that time to name the farms and explain how the bacteria jumped to humans without authorities trying to stop it.

Fact: This Has Happened

  • Four Danes have died in the past two years after being infected with the same MRSA bacteria that many of the country’s pigs are carrying.
  • The number of Danish pigs carrying MRSA has increased rapidly, from 13 percent in 2009 to 88 percent in 2013.
  • From 2007 to 2012, the number of people in Denmark who contracted the MRSA bacteria increased from 12 to 643, according to the Danish Agency SSI.
  • So far there is no evidence of MRSA transmission through meat.

Reprinted from Investigative Reporting Denmark. Author Staffan Dahllöf is a freelance journalist based in Copenhagen, where he reports on Danish issues to Swedish media, and on European affairs to Danish and Swedish media.

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