September 25, 2009 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Afghan controversy: publishing house and newspaper don’t stand to attention

One of the leading Danish dailies, Politiken, published an entire book as a free supplement on 16 September. Called Jæger – i Krig med Eliten (Ranger – at War with the Elite), it is former Danish soldier Thomas Rathsack’s personal account of the sensitive operations carried out by a Danish special forces unit in Afghanistan. It was to have been brought out today by the People’s Press publishing house, but the defence ministry asked a court to ban it on the grounds that it revealed state secrets that could endanger Danish soldiers.

Following its publication by Politiken and on the Internet, a Copenhagen court finally gave the green light on 21 September for its publication by the People’s Press.

The case has triggered an intense debate in Denmark, not only about the conduct of its special forces abroad but also about press freedom, defence secrecy and copyright. Reporters Without Borders interviewed a representative of the publishing house and Politiken’s editor. This is what they said:

Jakob Kvist is the creative director of Art People, a company whose publishing wing, People’s Press, was due to publish Jæger – i Krig med Eliten (Ranger – at War with the Elite).

RWB : When did the armed forces begin to take an interest in the book?

Jakob Kvist : The armed forces called me on 9 September and asked to have a copy of the book. One or two hours later we were contacted by the armed forces high command, which wanted to arrange meeting. So a meeting was organised the next day. The military representatives at the meeting told us the book posed a problem and they wanted to prevent its publication. In their view, certain passages of the book could put lives in danger and could compromise Denmark’s security and its relations with its leading allies. We offered to amend the passages that posed a problem. The military replied that they could not point to specific passages because that in itself would constitute a security risk. Finally, on Monday, they said the entire book was a danger and they were going to go to the courts to request that it be banned.

RWB : Do you know why they wanted it banned?

J. K. : They still have not officially told us what the problem was. The court hearing was held behind closed doors. It was forbidden to reveal what was said on pain of going to prison. In order to be able to continue talking to the press, I decided to leave the courtroom when the military arrived. My colleague stayed. He emerged four hours later. The hearing consisted of an examination of the book and problems it posed.

RWB : Tens of thousands of Danes have had access to the book online and in the pages of Politiken. Why are the armed forces continuing to oppose its publication?

J. K. : We are currently in a completely absurd situation. The book is circulating everywhere on the Internet. Politiken published it. A very large section of the Danish public has access to it. Yet the armed forces are continuing to oppose its publication. It has become a matter of principle. They continue to say it is dangerous.

RWB : When were you told of Politiken’s intentions to publish?

J. K. : We were told in the middle of the afternoon of the day before. It was just a possibility. There were no discussions, Politiken did not consult us. They told us what they were going to do in an email at the end of the afternoon. I replied that it was unacceptable and that they were violating the copyright, but there was no argument. There would have been no point. Too many things were going on at that moment.

RWB : Have you been won over by Politiken editor Toger Seidenfaden’s arguments?

J. K. : We are a small publishing house that tries to publish books but also to stay alive. The principle of free expression and press freedom is obviously at stake. But we must also survive.

RWB : Has Politiken done you a favour?

J. K. : I don’t think that this has helped us. It was not in our interest that the book be published by Politiken. It is still too soon to be able to say if any good will come of it. But I think it would have been better if Politiken had not published it.

RWB : Are you planning to sue the newspaper?

J. K. : It is a very complex question. A lot of principles are at stake: the safety of soldiers, freedom of expression, the right of the armed forces to control information, the copyright issue… All of these interests do not overlap. At the moment, we have two lawyers working full time on the legal battle with the armed forces. We have not had time to focus on the Politiken issue. That will come later.

RWB : What is your estimate of the damage you have sustained?

J. K. : We had planned to print 5,000 copies. That was before all the media revelations. We could easily have sold 100,000 copies. Now we are probably back to 5,000.

Toger Seidenfaden is the editor of the centre-left daily Politiken.

RWB : When did you take the decision to publish the entire book and why?

Toger Seidenfaden : Everything was decided on the Tuesday (15 September). The publishing house sent a digital copy to all the news media two weeks ago in anticipation of its publication. All the newspapers began to talk about it. Some published entire sections of the book. The defence ministry and the head of the armed forces contacted the editors and told them the book contained information harmful to state security and to troops stationed abroad. The publishing house tried to negotiate but the talks were unsuccessful. Finally, the armed forces went to a Copenhagen court to seek a temporary injunction banning the book’s publication. I was on a trip to South Korea. I learned about the case during the weekend. On the Monday, we learned that the head of the armed forces had sent a letter to all the country’s leading news media asking them not to refer to the book directly or indirectly for security reasons. I found the letter on my desk on the Tuesday morning.

RWB : What did the letter say?

T. S. : The head of the armed forces said in the letter that he would have liked to have given us the reasons but he could not, because even that would require revelations that would pose problems. He said he had no intention of violating free expression and did not want to prevent criticism of the armed forces.

RWB : How did you react?

T. S. : I felt that the letter required a response, one that could only be negative. I cannot allow defence secrecy to be turned into a magic formula that blocks all discussion. If there had existed any possibility of obtaining an explanation, I would have contacted the armed forces. But the letter ruled out any discussion. So I decided to publish the book.

RWB : And the security dangers?

T. S. : There was a debate among the staff. But all the journalists who had read the book and worked on the subject did not see what could pose a problem for the armed forces. It was the same with the former head of the armed forces and the experts we consulted. It was no longer enough to prevent its publication. We came to the following conclusion: that the book had been discussed a great deal in Denmark already, long passages had already been published and the publishing house had already sent out a digital version that could be copied with a single click. So as far as I was concerned, the book had already been published. If there really was a danger for Danish soldiers, the damage had already been done.

RWB : Why was it necessary to publish it?

T. S. : It is the first book to describe the role of the special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It talks about operations in which uniforms are not worn, which raises problems under the Geneva Convention and international law governing operations in wartime. There is also the transfer of prisoners by Danish soldiers to the US military. These are specific issues that require a public debate.

RWB : But by publishing the book without permission from the publishing house, you did not respect copyright.

T. S. : I established that I would not have any legal problems linked to the copyright issue. I told the publishers what I planned to do. They pointed out to me that they owned the copyright to the book. They told me they would not be partner to this enterprise. But I am completely sure that an agreement will be reached in the coming days and this aspect will no longer pose a problem.

RWB : But the publishing house says you did not do them a favour…

T. S. : If the publishers had actually given their permission, they would be in the same situation as I am right now (being sued by the defence ministry for breach of state secrecy). But, objectively, I have done them an immense service. It is thanks to Politiken that they are going to be able to publish the book. That said, I understand that they have no desire to recognise it and to be regarded as accomplices.

RWB : Would you have published the book if it had not already been available on the Internet?

T. S. : My decision would have been much more difficult to take. I would have had to summon a lot of experts to make sure that I was not running any risk. I cannot now say what I would have done. But as soon as the book was in the public domain, the decision was easy.

RWB : Why did the book elicit such a reaction?

T. S. : I think there are several explanations. Firstly, I think the armed forces want to discourage all the members of the special forces from publishing their own books. They are counting on a dissuasive effect, which is quite paradoxical as this soldier’s book has nothing but praise for the armed forces. Nonetheless, he is now facing the possibility of a 12-year jail sentence. I also think they want to prevent other revelations, especially about prisoner transfers. And then there is the issue of the Geneva Convention, which treats operations conducted in civilian dress as a violation of the rules of war or as espionage. In such circumstances, soldiers are exposed to all kinds of prosecution because they are not protected by the Geneva Convention. It is extremely dangerous and it is something we know nothing about. It raises another question: were the authorities aware?

RWB : Have you been surprised by the lack of reaction from your colleagues?

T. S. : It is interesting that none of the other editors replied to the letter from the head of the armed forces. None of them. If I had not, the debate would have stopped there. In my view, they failed to do what professional ethics require of them, because we were in a situation where there was a real danger that press freedom would suffer a reverse.

RWB : Were you surprised?

T. S. : I was surprised by this reaction, inasmuch as Denmark is dominated by a complete consensus about the principle that freedom of expression should be absolutely unlimited. But when you take account of the local political context, this reaction is less surprising. How otherwise do you account for the fact that all sorts of people who were ready to proclaim themselves total supporters of free expression during the cartoon controversy now say you have to respect the army’s injunction? When free expression is used to offend Muslims, it must be unlimited. But when it endangers soldiers fighting in Afghanistan against Muslims, it must be limited. I am sorry to say so, but that is how it is.