Defamation case against AU professor Stiig Markager is underway

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The special interest organisation Bæredygtigt Landbrug (‘sustainable agriculture’) has summonsed Professor Stiig Markager from the Department of Bioscience into court for defamation. The case is without precedent and can therefore constitute a precedent for future cases. For the same reason, Stiig Markager hopes that the court will reject the legal proceedings, which the AU researcher considers to be an attempt to silence him. Bæredygtigt Landbrug contradicts this assertion – the organisation believes that the case would never have come to court if Markager had simply documented his claim correctly.

2021.06.29 | Marie Groth Andersen

Have nitrogen emission levels in coastal waters increased due to farming practices? This question is central to the court case, to which the special interest organisation Bæredygtigt Landbrug (‘sustainable agriculture’) has summonsed AU professor Stiig Markager. The case which is without precedent started this week. The verdict will be announced on 2 July. Photo: Colourbox

WHAT IS THE COURT CASE ABOUT?

Bæredygtigt Landbrug has taken a case against Professor Stiig Markager, because the professor wrote the following in an opinion piece in the newspaper Berlingske, published 31 March last year: ”The amount of nitrogen being released into coastal waters has increased by 700 tons per year since 2010 (the data are taken from the report Vandløb 2017), after corrections have been made for changes in precipitation. This increase is statistically significant”. In response to this, Bæredygtigt Landbrug mentioned two points: first it believed that the claim was incorrect and second that the report which Stiig Markager referred to did not show this information. The opinion piece played a role in the intense public debate in 2019 on nitrogen emissions from agriculture between among others professors Stiig Markager and Jørgen E. Olesen. NOVANA The report Vandløb 2017 (‘Rivers and streams 2017’) is a scientific report which constitutes a part of the so-called NOVANA-reports. NOVANA stands for Det Nationale Overvågningsprogram for Vandmiljø og Natur (’The National Monitoring Programme for the Aquatic Environment and Nature’), and it is a programme for research-based observations and/or monitoring of the Danish nature and environment. Aarhus University publishes NOVANA-reports which are part of its public sector consultancy for the Ministry of Environment and Food.

Update: 2 July, verdict reached in the case: Stiig Markager was found not guilty, and Bærdygtigt Landbrug has been ordered to pay court costs.

On Tuesday, the case started at the county courthouse in Hillerød, north of Copenhagen, which Professor Emeritus Ditlev Tamm has previously called in an Omnibus article ‘a case without precedent’. For many years, Tamm has researched the history of the courts.

The court case concerns Stiig Markager, a professor at the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University, who has been summonsed by the special interest organisation Bæredygtigt Landbrug, because he commented on a debate in an opinion piece in the newspaper Berlingske from 2019 (in Danish), regarding whether nitrogen emissions from Danish agriculture would decrease as a result of the so-called ‘agriculture package’ (changes in the laws related to the regulation of farming). Markager claimed in that regard that the amount of nitrogen entering coastal waters from Danish agriculture has increased by 700 tons per year since 2010, and that the increase was statistically significant.

Bæredygtigt Landbrug said that there is no documentation to support this claim, which they believe to be incorrect and also defaming – in other words libellous – to the organisation’s members, i.e. farmers. 

Stiig Markager stands by his claim, which he believes is well-documented by the public surveillance data. The method is described in more detail for example in the report Vandløb from 2017. Markager has requested through his lawyer that the case be rejected by the court given the fact that the case is of no direct legal interest to Bæredygtigt Landbrug. If this doesn’t happen, he will seek to be acquitted.

The court is not the right place for debate 

Stiig Markager described having a court case taken against him due to comments he made publicly based on his own research as an unpleasant experience and a step too far. And he does not agree that it is the agricultural sector that has been defamed.

”I mean, it’s me who is being defamed, because by taking this case, Bæredygtigt Landbrug has questioned my credibility. Being credible is the most basic trait that a researcher should have.”

Stiig Markager also doesn’t believe that a court case is the right place for a research-based discussion.

”It’s wrong that this case even came to court. A courtroom is not the right place to discuss research. We do that at conferences and through scientific publications. I’m happy to discuss my research results. But I can only interpret it as a form of intimidation and as a way of silencing me.

You’ve described it as an attack on your freedom of speech?

”Yes, but it’s more than that. I see it as an attack on freedom of information. It’s important for citizens to have access to information about essential questions. As a society, we need to actively support researchers for example to pass on information to citizens, and to ensure that the democratic debate can happen on the best possible informed basis. It’s that which is being attacked, because using this case as a basis, perhaps other researchers will think twice before speaking to journalists again.” 

Stiig Markager emphasised though that it’s not a worry for him.

”I’m basing this on statements from my younger colleagues. People are not only concerned about ending up in court, but also the time spent on that. And it’s about the possible consequences it may have on one’s ability to apply for grants. The Danish Agriculture and Food Council has a strong influence on many Danish funding bodies.” 

On Friday, 2 July, a verdict will be announced in the case. Stiig Markager hopes that the case will be dismissed by the court.

”If so, this case will set a precedent that these types of cases can’t be brought to court, but that instead they should be brought into the public debate,” said Stiig Markager, who is also appealing to the university. 

”I’d like for the university in general to support researchers more in taking part in the public debate by acknowledging that it requires time, as well as careful thought and consideration to express yourself correctly,” said Stiig Markager, who, however, emphasised that he is pleased with the support that he has received from Aarhus University in relation to the case.

AU backs Markager

Aarhus University is paying for Stiig Markager’s legal costs related to the case.

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, former dean at the then Faculty of Science and Technology Lars Henrik Andersen, and the former head at the Department of Bioscience made very clear in an opinion piece in the newspaper Information (in Danish) from 2019, immediately after Markager had been summonsed, that Stiig Markager was being fully supported by the management team at AU. In the same piece, they called it ‘inappropriate’ that Bærdygtigt Landbrug would bring Stiig Markager to court for his comments on nitrogen.

Eskild Holm Nielsen, who is the dean at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, where the Department of Bioscience is located, emphasised that the management’s support of Stiig Markager remained unchanged.

”I can only wonder why a special interest organisation chose to bring a researcher to court because it’s not a discussion that belongs in a courtroom. Professional disputes and differences of opinion should be settled out of court. Therefore, I believe that it’s inappropriate that Bæredygtigt Landbrug chose to summons Stiig Markager, and the management team continues to stand with him and we support him fully,” added Eskild Holm Nielsen, who hopes that the case is dismissed out of consideration for researchers’ freedom of speech.

When asked about Markager’s request for greater recognition that it can be time-consuming and costly to take part in the public debate as a researcher, Eskild Holm Nielsen said:

”I understand fully that the case has been difficult for Markager, and I think that it’s totally unacceptable that researchers should be brought in front of the courts in this way. But researchers also have both a right and an obligation to express themselves within their areas of research and in this way contribute to the public debate – that is part of the task as a researcher.”

However, the dean added:

”When you risk ending up in court, simply because you express your opinion, then it can have an impact on the researcher’s desire to take part in the public debate, and I think this is very worrying.”

Support from the trade unions

Two employment trade unions, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (AC), have been approved to be in court in support of Stiig Markager.  

In an opinion piece published in Omnibus (in Danish), Chair for the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, Camilla Gregersen, described the methods employed by Bæredygtigt Landbrug as ‘bully methods’:

Bæredygtigt Landbrug’s litigation is a form of bullying, aimed to threaten people into silence, and thus we’re talking about a serious attack on freedom of speech and on freedom of research”, wrote Camilla Gregersen.

Environmental organisations support Markager

In front of the county courthouse in Hillerød, representatives for the environmental organisation NOAH had taken banners with them to show their support for Stiig Markager. NOAH together with Frie Bønder (an association for smaller and nature-friendly farms), Greenpeace, the Danish Vegetarian Association, Global Action and The Green Student Movement signed a joint declaration of support for Stiig Markager.

BL: If Markager had documented his claim, we wouldn’t be in this situation 

Director for Bæredygtigt Landbrug (BL), Hans Aarestrup, acknowledged that it is an unusual move to summons a researcher.

”But the events leading up to this point show that we have tried for a long time to get Stiig Markager to present the documentation to support his claim. When this didn’t happen, we went to the dean and the rector to get an answer. During all of this, we’ve said that if we get the documentation, then we’d call it a day.  But we’ve never received the documentation. We find it difficult to understand that in the NOVANA report, there’s one result, but Stiig Markager says something else based on the same data. That’s what we want to get to the bottom of.”

But why didn’t you present this critique in the public debate – why have you brought this to court?

”We believe that we have exhausted all possibilities. If Stiig Markager had just provided an explanation for this claim or one had come from AU, then the case wouldn’t have been taken any further.”

And for that reason, you’ve decided to play hardball by summonsing him…

”Yes, that’s true. But as I’ve said before, we’ve tried many times to engage in other ways.”

This summons has been seen by Markager and others as an attempt to silence a critical researcher – what do you say to that?

”He’s welcome to express his opinion. We do expect that as a researcher he will go out and make his thoughts known. And researchers are allowed to have their own opinions. But you also have to be able to support your claims with evidence. And when we asked, he directed us to the NOVANA report. And that’s when we said: Can you please show us where this evidence is in the report, because we can’t find it?”

Playing devil’s advocate here - perhaps the problem is that you don’t understand the data that have been presented?

”Yes, I know that there are some who find it amusing that the calculations presented in court were at the level of a high school student. And I got a bit angry about this. We’re ten people in the secretariat, nine of us have a Master’s degree, at least four of us have studied statistics, but we still can’t work out where he is getting his data from. And that’s why we have asked for an explanation.”

Translated by Marian Flanagan

WHAT IS THE COURT CASE ABOUT?

Bæredygtigt Landbrug has taken a case against Professor Stiig Markager, because the professor wrote the following in an opinion piece in the newspaper Berlingske, published 31 March last year: ”The amount of nitrogen being released into coastal waters has increased by 700 tons per year since 2010 (the data are taken from the report Vandløb 2017), after corrections have been made for changes in precipitation. This increase is statistically significant”. In response to this, Bæredygtigt Landbrug mentioned two points: first it believed that the claim was incorrect and second that the report which Stiig Markager referred to did not show this information. The opinion piece played a role in the intense public debate in 2019 on nitrogen emissions from agriculture between among others professors Stiig Markager and Jørgen E. Olesen. NOVANA The report Vandløb 2017 (‘Rivers and streams 2017’) is a scientific report which constitutes a part of the so-called NOVANA-reports. NOVANA stands for Det Nationale Overvågningsprogram for Vandmiljø og Natur (’The National Monitoring Programme for the Aquatic Environment and Nature’), and it is a programme for research-based observations and/or monitoring of the Danish nature and environment. Aarhus University publishes NOVANA-reports which are part of its public sector consultancy for the Ministry of Environment and Food.

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