Twitter Logo Youtube Circle Icon LinkedIn Icon

Publishing firms

Legal Developments worldwide

Prison sentence to undercover journalists

September 2010 - Employment. Legal Developments by Norrbom Vinding Law Firm, member of ius laboris.

More articles by this firm.

There are limits to how far journalists can go in order to get their hands on a good story. Two journalists were therefore given a 20-day suspended prison sentence for going undercover at a care centre.

A journalist's prime duty is to provide news of public interest. Uncovering rotten apples is part of the job as well, but - as this case illustrates - not at the expense of privacy.  

Hidden camera
Two journalists were planning an investigative TV documentary about a care centre. One of them therefore applied for a job at the centre. She got the job and started filming everyday routines at the care centre with a hidden camera. The intention was to show a number of unacceptable conditions such as poor sanitary conditions, bedsores and a harsh tone at the centre.   The documentary was broadcast in primetime on Danish national TV. And the public reacted. Some residents and relatives were so offended that they filed a police report. In their opinion, the journalists had committed a criminal offence. The police then brought the case before the court.    

Filming was a criminal offence
First, the Copenhagen City Court considered the issue of illegal filming. Weighing freedom of expression and information against privacy, the Court noted that, on the one hand, the documentary had sparked a public debate but, on the other hand, it showed very private scenes of people who were not aware of being filmed.   The Court found that the filming was illegal since it had been carried out in a non-public place and since the subjects had not given their consent. The fact that the documentary uncovered a number of unacceptable conditions did not legitimise the filming.   Regarding the issue of public sector employees' freedom of expression, the Court established that the journalists had disclosed confidential information which they had received in the course of their employment. This is illegal.   For these offences, the journalists each received a 20-day suspended prison sentence. Also, they were ordered to pay compensation for injury to the feelings of a resident and several employees.


Norrbom Vinding notes:

  • that the case illustrates that, freedom of expression and information notwithstanding, journalists' secret filming in non-public places may constitute an invasion of privacy; and
  • that the case further illustrates that it is a criminal offence for public sector employees - including undercover journalists - to disclose confidential information received in the course of their employment.