Verdict on “estonia” research: conditional acquittal

Research on the sinking of the ferry "Estonia" brought two Swedish journalists to court. The matter has not yet been resolved.

852 people went down with the ferry Estonia, the wreck lies in 60 meters depth Photo: Kimmo Mantyla/picture alliance

Swedish journalists Henrik Evertsson and Linus Andersson were acquitted of charges by the Gothenburg Magistrate’s Court on Monday, without the real issue in the case being resolved: Did they disturb the peace of the dead with their research for a documentary film?

This is not exactly a common accusation, which is why the proceedings attracted attention even beyond Sweden. Evertsson and Andersson researched the causes of the sinking of the ferry "Estonia" in 1994 in 2019. One detail of their research brought the public prosecutor’s office onto the scene: with the help of a diving robot, underwater photographs were taken of the "Estonia" wreck, which lies at a depth of around 60 meters on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

But that is punishable by law. Sweden, Finland and Estonia have declared the area around the ferry, in which 852 people perished in the worst European shipping disaster since the Second World War, a burial site under the Estonia Act. Diving is prohibited there as a matter of principle.

In the fall of 2020, the two journalists therefore received a charge of disturbing the peace of the dead. They faced a prison sentence of up to two years. Scandinavian journalists’ associations and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) protested: Investigative journalism should not be criminalized. The investigations had taken place in the public interest.

New investigation

This is proven not least by the reaction that the film triggered. The "forbidden" footage shows a previously unknown hole in the ship’s hull. Last week, the Estonian government allocated 3 million euros for a new official investigation. Without the film footage, this would not have happened.

Evertsson and Andersson have now been acquitted solely because the diving operation was made from aboard a ship registered in Germany. German law was thus decisive. And Germany is the only Baltic Sea country that has not adopted the "Estonia Act". Presumably, the ruling will not be the last word on the matter. Its interpretation of the "Estonia" Act would make a violation of the law of the dead dependent solely on the flag of the ship from which an action is taken. The public prosecutor’s office is likely to seek a landmark decision from the Supreme Court.

In 2015, the Supreme Court had to decide on the limits of journalistic research in a similar case. At that time, the editor-in-chief and two journalists from the daily newspaper Expressen were sentenced to fines for violating gun laws. They had illegally purchased a revolver while researching the arms trade, but immediately handed it over to the police afterwards.

The Supreme Court ruled that no special law applies to journalists, regardless of their motives for breaking the law: Their motives could at most be taken into account when determining guilt and sentencing.

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