When journalism and justice collide

In recent years the Danish police have failed to identify officers involved in a number of controversial actions. The arrest of photojournalist Martin Lehmann is one example where the police's unwillingness to cooperate threatens the freedom of the press

On September 9, 2015, hundreds of refugees arrived in Denmark from Germany and started walking along the E45 motorway toward Sweden. Photojournalist Martin Lehmann was covering the event for Politiken newspaper, and decided to join them as they trudged north.

After a few hours, the police closed the motorway and asked the press to leave for the sake of public order. But after seeing the police attempt to prevent the refugees from continuing on their journey, Lehmann was worried that conflict might erupt. Wanting to document the events, he ignored the order to leave the motorway and was ultimately arrested.

Charged with “disturbing the public order”, he must now convince the courts that he was right to stay.

“It is a very simple matter: we are going to find out why I was arrested and why I believe I should not have been arrested. If the motorway had been open to traffic that day, I would of course have evaluated the situation accordingly. But the motorway was closed to traffic, so safety was not an issue,” Lehmann explains.

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The case against him could potentially set a precedent regarding the ability of the press to cover events of public interest. But while its conclusion has been anxiously awaited, the planned court date on March 22 was deferred because no prosecutor was available.

Martin Lehmann is weary of the long wait.

“I had been looking forward to going to court,” he says. “It is really disappointing. This is now the second time I have been subjected to the case being postponed, and I am just getting very tired of it.”

Slow and hampered proceedings
The deferral is not the only problem facing Lehmann and his lawyer, Hanne Rahbæk, at the moment. On the day Lehmann was arrested, two police officers were pictured using force to separate a man from his daughter. Their testimony could reinforce the argument that Lehmann had a professional duty to stay and document the events as a member of the free press in a public place.

“It is important for us to get them to testify, because it is crucial that we get a clear picture of what the scene was like that day,” says Lehmann.

A photo taken the evening before Martin Lehmann was arrested, showing refugees and migrants exiting the motorway to walk along a road toward a train station on the island of Lolland. Photo: Peter Stanners

In February, South Jutland Police refused to identify the officers to Sønderborg City Court, saying that “further evidence is superfluous” and “it is not possible to identify some of the officers.”

The police later clarified their position in a press release, stating that the identities of the police officers were known, but that they would not disclose them unless the court deemed it relevant to the case.

Unidentified police officers
This is not the first time Danish police have been reluctant to identify officers involved in controversial activities. During the COP15 climate conference in 2009, five people were arrested when the police mistook one of them for an internationally-wanted terrorist.

Although all five were released the same day when the police realised their error, some of those detained complained that they were mistreated in custody. Two-and-a-half years later, despite the existence of a photograph of the officers conducting the arrest, the attorney general has had to concede that the officers could not be identified.

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In 2012, two officers were pictured stopping an activist carrying the Tibetan flag during a state visit by then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. Police held the demonstrator for an hour, which the Eastern High Court (Østre Landsret) subsequently ruled an illegal detention. The police claimed they could not find the officers responsible, and were chastised for ineptitude in the court’s summary of the case.

These high-profile cases are symptomatic of a wider problem, according to Kirsten Dyrman, director of the Danish Independent Police Complaints Authority, who told Politiken that many cases become stranded when it proves impossible to find the officers in question.

In 2016, in response to these controversies, Danish police were made to wear visible numbers on their uniforms. Prior to the implementation of these rules, Denmark was one of the few European countries where police lacked visible ID numbers.

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Martin Lehmann, a photographer at Politiken newspaper, was arrested for refusing to leave a group of refugees and migrants as they walked along a motorway. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Documenting history
It remains to be seen whether the ID numbers will reduce the number of cases in which officers are unidentifiable. But while Lehmann’s case drags on, he hopes the focus can return to the more important issue at hand: the right of the press to document events. “A few days after my arrest, I said that this issue was not about police but about politics. This is a case that is fundamentally about freedom of the press, which is a very, very important issue that is undergoing an enormous attack at the moment. So it’s not about me – it concerns everyone working in the field – because it is fundamentally about our ability to do our work properly.”

He says Politiken is completely supportive of him and his case, and that he has received a lot of support from other journalists and media. They all appreciate that events such as the large migrant movement on September 9, 2015, need to be documented and reported as thoroughly and accurately as possible, as they can have lasting impact.

“This is Denmark’s history. Europe’s history. A hundred years from now, we will talk about the day crowds of refugees started to arrive on foot, marching up Denmark’s motorways. It is vital that we are allowed to document historic events like these.” M

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By Johanna Sveinsdottir

Johanna Sveinsdottir Editorial intern. Originally from Iceland, Johanna has a masters in English with a focus on linguistics and language psychology.

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