Expressen editor guilty of Persbrandt libel

A jury has found the editor of Swedish tabloid Expressen guilty of defamation after the paper wrongly wrote that actor Mikael Persbrandt had been admitted to a clinic suffering from acute alcohol poisoning.

The jury delivered its verdict at 4pm on Friday. The final ruling in the case will be delivered by judges, with the jury’s decision only advisory.

Earlier on Friday prosecutors had demanded that Expressen editor Otto Sjöberg be fined 100 days’ wages for gross defamation. The jury found Sjöberg guilty of the criminal offence of defamation, but not of the more serious charge of gross defamation, for which prosecutors had pressed.

Otto Sjöberg’s lawyer Peter Danowsky told Stockholm district court that the actor’s reputation had not been harmed by Expressen’s stories. But the prosecution said that the reports that Persbrandt had received treatment for acute alcohol poisoning were insulting and constituted gross defamation.

The prosecution also argued that Expressen was not covered by the laws guaranteeing freedom of the press, which allow tough investigations of those in positions of power and influence. Persbrandt was not accused of having abused power or position. The articles were simply intended to spread scandals about the actor.

Persbrandt’s lawyer Per Liljekvist also addressed the court, demanding punitive damages of 300,000 kronor, and an additional 200,000 to compensate for Persbrandt’s suffering.

“Expressen took a conscious risk. It cost nothing. Isn’t it time to take a stand,” he asked the jury.

But Peter Danowsky argued that Persbrandt’s reputation had in no way been damaged and that he had not been defamed.

“People’s impression of Mikael Persbrandt is coloured by his alcoholism,” said Danowsky, arguing that reports that an alcoholic is seeking help is likely to increase respect for him.

The case had been brought by the Chancellor of Justice, in a rare use of his power to bring public prosecutions in cases involving questions of press freedom.

The Chancellor’s representative in court, chief prosecutor Tora Holst, opened by reading aloud from articles and showing the court a billboard from the offending edition of the paper. The paper had said that Persbrandt was “intoxicated night after night” and “behaved like a real pig both towards himself and towards those around him.”

Danowsky told the jury that there were only two aspects of the article that it was being asked to decide upon- the parts which said that Persbrandt had been suffering from acute alcohol poisoning and that he had therefore been admitted to a clinic.

“Nothing else in the text is the subject of trial here,” he said.

Under questioning by Tora Holst and Per Liljekvist, Persbrandt denied insistently that he had a symbiotic relationship with the tabloids, something that Danowsky claimed.

“I haven’t built a career as a soap actor. Such a symbiosis would in that case be one-way,” he said.

A trial for defamation under freedom of speech laws is unique in Swedish law for being heard by a jury. The jury, composed of nine laymen, is charged with deciding whether a crime has been committed. Six votes are required for a conviction.

Questions including legal responsibility, sentencing and damages are decided by judges. A not guilty verdict from the jury is binding on the court. A guilty verdict can be overturned by judges.

People who feel they have been defamed in the media can bring private prosecutions, but must themselves provide evidence and risk being forced to pay the trial costs.

The Chancellor of Justice is the only official in Sweden who can bring a public prosecution in defamation cases.

Damages in Swedish libel cases are lower than in most other countries, and rarely exceed 100,000 kronor.

A smiling Mikael Persbrandt left the court before the jury’s verdict, to wait for the outcome in an undisclosed location.