HRS International

Schjenken sues Dagbladet

Erik Schjenken’s life changed in Sofienberg Park in 2007. That was when Schjenken, then an ambulance driver, made a decision which the power elite and the anti-racism industry – with the generous help of the media – made use of to label Schjenken a racist. He was later cleared of racism charges, but the road was long and the charges obviously too heavy to bear. Now he wants Dagbladet convicted of defamation. He must be what is known as an optimist. The number of us who are victims of the media is steadily on the rise here in Norway, because that’s how the system works.

Rita Karlsen, HRS

When you’re subjected to an abusive campaign in the media, a strategy that Dagbladet and Klassekampen especially seem to have specialized in, there’s one thing you can be sure of: the more dirt you try to defend yourself against, the more they’ll fling at you. And you come to recognize three main things. 1) who has integrity and who your friends are; 2) you can’t clear your name in print; 3) the media never give up, no matter how bad a case they have.

As a young and happy student of political science, I learned about the rights and liberties granted the individual in Norway. That happiness has since been discolored by a couple of nasty bruises of the sort that can’t be healed but which one learns to live with. For the constitutional nation of Norway cannot protect the individual’s legal protections and justice. Or if it can, you have to be named Jens Stoltenberg, Jonas Gahr Støre, Olav Thon, Celine Middelfart, Øystein Stray Spetalen or something like that. In other words, either you belong to the highest power elite or you have deep pockets that make it possible for you to stand up to your attackers. The rest of us will just find ourselves knee-deep in the mud the media pours on us.

Did I hear the PFU (Pressens Faglige Utvalg) [the official press body which handles complaints about unethical practices in the media]? These media people whose job is to ensure that media act in accordance with their own ethical rules? Yes, after PFU (in connection with our complaints last summer about Dagbladet’s campaign against HRS) explained that their role is not to establish the truth (”we’re not a judicial authority, you know”), I realized that to complain to PFU is like playing the lottery. It just takes up a lot more of your time and money, and any victory you may achieve is meaningless.

What do you do, then, if the media have decided to throw mud at you?

Reply in the media? Well, if you’re lucky you’ll get to see your reply in print – if, that is, the media organ in question hasn’t decided that the case, as far as they’re concerned, is closed, or that your reply can only be published (a week from now) if you shorten it from 4000 to 1000 characters. Other media, of course, won’t be interested in running it, since they haven’t published anything about the story. But you can be certain that if some journalist or other wants to reach you for a comment on some crap story they’re running about you, they’ll be in such a big hurry that they’ll hardly have time to introduce themselves on the phone. And they have more questions than they have time to listen to your answers. Or even worse, if you don’t give them the answer they want, they’ll just write something else. And if you don’t pick up the phone, they’ll write that you “refused to comment”; or they won’t even ring at all, and instead just claim that you ”weren’t available for comment.” I have hardly ever experienced more outrageous behavior than I have on the part of journalists, if one can call them when they’re out to get you (by the way, the PFU pointed out to HRS that advocacy journalism ”isn’t illegal” – they neglected to say anything about the ethics of it).

But the media are one thing; the impression that they leave with the public is something else, and when people who are incapable of thinking for themselves read or hear a set of accusations which may not be entirely true, and which may in fact be entirely false, their natural response is to think that, well, something here must be true, right? No, you may reply, none of it was true. It was all based on lies, all made up; it’s pure nonsense. But whom are you to say it to? By that point the media have moved on, leaving their filth behind them.

And no, we haven’t forgotten the famous opinion piece that Ny Tid ran by Ali Farah – or the fact that the same newsweekly, in 2007, named Kohinoor “Norwegian of the Year.” And Dagbladet left no doubt about which side they stood on, for example, in Trude Ringheim’s op-ed As Ali sees it. But in many ways the former ambulance driver Erik Schjenken is still luckier than plenty of others, even if I think he probably doesn’t think so himself. For although Schjenken was at the center of a massive thunderstorm while it was all going on, there was one man, one journalist, who dared to think for himself. Kjetil S. Østli of Aftenposten A-Magasin didn’t let himself be gagged by the clammy hand of the collective, and wrote an unusually good article about how Schjenken had been labeled a racist. Later, and this is something else Schjenken should be happy about, several court judgments found that he was not a racist.

But for Schjenken it’s still hard to live with what happened. He tells the news agency NTB why he is suing Dagbladet for defamation of character:

“But what remains is the press’s incorrect and one-sided coverage of the case. I’ve thought about it a long time, about whether I should give it up, but I’ve decided that I can’t. I have to have it out with them,” reports VG Nett.

In consultation with lawyer Carl Bore, Schjenken has decided to take on the claims in, and the wording of, Dagbladet’s editorials.

“There are several wordings in several editorials. Simply put, the common denominator is that I’m depicted as a racist. We’ve chosen to go after the editorials because that’s where the newspaper expresses its own opinions. It therefore involves another kind of judicial evaluation than if we had sued the newspaper for its editorial reportage, in which other people’s opinions are being communicated,” says Schjenken.

But in that case, it occurs to me, Dagbladet has done nothing wrong, nothing that deserves criticism: they’ve just exercised their freedom of expression (which is like religious freedom: we believe what we want and have a right to express it).

Editor in chief Lars Helle of Dagbladet says that the newspaper has had conversations with Schjenken and his lawyer about this case for more than a year. ”There is no reason for us to apologize. We haven’t called him a racist and the op-eds in our newspaper fall within the limits of freedom of speech,” Helle tells NTB.He points out that for the newspaper this is an important question of principle, but cannot comment any further because of the case being brought by Schjenken and his lawyer.

I wish with all my heart that Schjenken would win this case. Perhaps it would lead Dagbladet and other media to think twice before they print black-and-white stories written by people predisposed to believe certain things about the black victim and the bad white man. But I’m afraid that all Schjenken will be left with is a slender purse, and that even the well-deserved 100,000 kroner he received from the Media Victim Fund (established by [millionaire businessman] Øystein Stray Spetalen after a confrontation with Dagbladet) will not take him very far. And if he is lucky enough to win out, well, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dagbladet goes bankrupt first. The only thing I know for sure is that Dagbladet will never admit anything. Then again, if Schjenken has a Stray Spetalen on his side….

Translation by Bruce Bawer