Defamation remains a criminal offence in Denmark.
The relevant offence in the Danish Criminal Code is Art. 267 on defamation, defined as “violat[ing] the personal honour of another by offensive words or conduct or by making or spreading allegations of an act likely to disparage him in the esteem of his fellow citizens”. The scope of this article includes both factual allegations as well as “terms of abuse”. The penalty for acts under this article is a fine or imprisonment for up to for months .
Art. 268 stipulates that defamation committed in bad faith (maliciously), or in cases in which the offender at least had good reason to think the information was false, the possible penalty increases to a prison term of up to two years. Art. 269 provides an exemption from criminal liability if the act under Art. 267 involves a fact-based allegation that is true of “if the issuer of the allegation in good faith has been under an obligation to speak or has acted in lawful protection of obvious public interest or of the personal interest of himself or of others”.
Under Art. 270, even true statements may be liable under Art. 267 if they are considered gratuitously insulting.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Art. 121 of the Danish Criminal Code sanctions “attack[ing] a public servant with insult, abusive language or other offensive words or gestures” in the course of the public servant’s duties. The penalty is a fine or imprisonment for up to six months.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
The criminal penalties for defamation are doubled if committed against the Danish king or the head of government, according to Criminal Code Art. 115. Hence, offenders face up to four years in prison. If the victim the queen, the queen mother, or the heir to the throne, punishment is increased by 50 percent (which corresponds to up to three years in prison).
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
The criminal penalties for defamation are doubled if committed against a foreign head of state or head of a foreign diplomatic mission are doubled, according to Criminal Code Art. 110d. This corresponds to imprisonment for up to four years.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Art. 110e of the Danish Criminal Code punishes the public insult of a foreign state, its flag or other recognised symbol, or the flag of the United Nations or the European Council. The punishment is a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Art. 274 of the Danish Criminal Code sanctions defamation against deceased persons with up to four years in prison. The statute of limitations for this crime is 20 years, unless the element of malice as outlined in Art. 268 applies.
Under Art. 140 of the Danish Criminal Code, mocking a person’s religion or the doctrine of a faith is a criminal offence is punishable by imprisonment for up to four months.
Note that Art. 266b of the Danish Criminal Code covers ‘hate speech’. Hate speech is defined as publicly making threatening, degrading or spiteful statements about a group of people, on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation. The punishment provided is fines or imprisonment for up to two years.
The following are official data on convictions for selected articles of the Criminal Code for the year 2014 from Statistics Denmark, provided upon request to the International Press Institute.
• For Arts. 267-270 (defamation and insult), there was 1 conviction resulting in 1 criminal fine.
• For Art. 121 (insult of a public official), there were 43 convictions, resulting in 7 prison sentences and 9 criminal fines. These numbers do not include data for insult of a police officer, considered under the same article, for which there were 289 convictions resulting in 46 prison sentences and 217 fines.
• For Art. 115 (lèse-majesté), there were 0 convictions.
• For Art. 140 (blasphemy), there were 0 convictions.
• For Art. 274 (insulting the honour of the dead), there were 0 convictions.
Criminal Defamation and Media
The Danish Criminal Code’s provision on insulting foreign heads of state (Art. 110d) has been applied extremely rarely. Experts believe that the law was last applied in 1934, when a group of persons “delivered a note to the German chargé d’affaires criticizing the then Nazi regime, i.e. ‘down with the Nazi’s bloody horror regime’” and were sanctioned under this article .
The situation regarding Art. 110e (public insult of a foreign state or its symbols). This provision has not been applied since the Second World War. There were two reported cases prior to that time: in 1934, a person was charged for tearing down the Nazi flag (UfR 1934.589Ø) but acquitted as that flag was not the official German flag at the time. In 1936, a person was convicted for removing the Soviet flag from a Soviet delegation house (UfR 1936.820Ø).
Prosecutions under Arts. 110d and 110e are considered unlikely today. However, prosecutions under Art. 140 (blasphemy) were also previously thought unlikely, but in February 2017 prosecutors charged a man with blasphemy for burning a copy of the Koran .
In 2014, an appeals court sentenced four journalists working for Denmark’s public broadcaster to pay criminal fines for defamation in relation to a 2009 radio broadcast that had a criticised a housing association. The court overturned a district court ruling that had found in favour of the journalists.
In 2007, a Danish historian named Bent Jensen gave an interview to the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in which he stated that there was evidence that a Danish journalist well known for his reporting on the Cold War, Jørgen Dragsdahl, was a KGB spy. Dragsdahl sued Jensen and the paper for libel. In 2010, a court in Svendborg sentenced Jensen to pay a criminal fine of 40,000 and 200,000 kroner in damages. Jyllands-Posten was acquitted by the same court. Bent appealed, and in October 2013, Denmark’s Eastern High Court overturned the lower court’s verdict. The High Court ruled that Dragsdahl’s actions were a subject of public interest and that Jensen had sufficient factual basis for making his claim; as such, under the circumstances, Jensen’s right to freedom of expression overruled Dragsdahl’s right to privacy. Dragsdahl appealed to the Danish Supreme Court, which in 2015 overturned the High Court’s ruling and restored the criminal conviction. Jensen was ordered to pay 10 daily fines at a rate of 1,000 kroner, in addition to compensation of 100,000 and 502,700 kroner in legal costs. Jensen announced that he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights .
Recent Legal Changes
Following instances in which Danish flags were burned by protesters, MPs from the Danish People’s Party have requested in recent years that Art. 110e be modified to include criminal liability for insulting Denmark or its symbols .
In February 2015, Danish Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen announced the government would not seek repeal of the country’s blasphemy law. According to media accounts, Frederiksen based the decision on a recent report issued by Denmark’s Criminal Law Council (Straffelovrådet), which had been asked to examine the issue in 2011. The report concluded that Art. 140 did not forbid sharp criticism of religion and suggested that, in the event of repeal, it would be difficult for the state to prosecute public burnings of the Bible or Koran .
In March 2015, the Danish government considered a draft proposal that would have tripled criminal penalties for violations of the right to private life and defamatory/false stories in the media. The proposal followed the publication of controversial articles by tabloid media .
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Denmark was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.
IPI special investigation: The application of criminal defamation laws in Europe
September 15th, 2015