‘Bookseller’ dispute far from over

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UPDATED: Norwegian author and journalist Åsne Seierstad has appealed an Oslo court order that she and her publisher pay damages to one of the subjects of her international bestseller “The Bookseller of Kabul.” Some legal experts think the case may go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Author Åsne Seierstad continues to defend her work. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm/Cecilie Owren

Seierstad’s defense lawyer, Cato Schiøtz, told news bureau AFP that he was “astonished” by the court ruling in favour of plaintiff Suraia Rais, second wife of the book’s main subject Shah Muhammad Rais, who had invited Seierstad to live with his family in Kabul in 2002. Seierstad’s time with the family provided her with the material for her book that since has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.

Seierstad’s book offered a detailed account of her four-month stay with the Rais family, with many intimate details and examples of how women were treated. Her Norwegian version was an instant hit in Norway, but it wasn’t until her book came out in English that the Rais family cried foul.

Suraia Rais sued both Seierstad and her publisher, Cappelen Damm, in Oslo, claiming they violated the family’s privacy, while her husband has claimed the family’s honor was at stake. A city court in Oslo sided with Rais late last week, and ordered Seierstad and Cappelen Damm to each pay NOK 125,000 (about USD 20,000) to Rais.

Schiøtz had strongly advised Seierstad to appeal. Seierstad herself told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday that she hadn’t discussed the ruling with her attorney yet and couldn’t say whether she’d appeal, but she continued to defend her work. On Wednesday she moved forwards with appeal, claiming important issues were involved.

‘No agreements’
Seierstad claims she used “established journalistic methods” within her field of documentaries. She claimed she never entered into any agreement with the Rais family that would have given them a right to approve her book, contending that would have made it an authorized biography.

Nor did her subjects have a right to review or approve their quotes, as is often the custom in Norway. “That’s not usual in international journalism,” Seierstad told DN. “The agreement we had was that I should live with the family to describe their life in Kabul. They chose themselves what they wanted to say or answer.”

A spokeswoman for Cappelen Damm told DN they had “full confidence” in what Seierstad wrote and will closely examine the court ruling. They backed the appeal.

More claims pending
Rais’ attorney, Per Danielsen, called the court ruling “correct and comprehensive” and said it provided a basis for additional claims from other Rais family members who feel their privacy was violated. He said an appeal “won’t change anything” apart from raising court costs and exposing Seierstad and Cappelen Damm to even higher compensation claims.

Schiøtz maintains that the statute of limitations has expired for further claims from other Rais family members.

Paul Bjerke, an assistant professor at the College of Volda in Norway, called the Oslo court ruling “unfortunate” regarding the right to freedom of expression. He told newspaper Dagsavisen that the case has “a good chance” of being heard before Norway’s Supreme Court (Høyesterett) and may end up in the international court system.

“Since this raises central issues of freedom of expression and artistic freedom, it is not unreasonable to think that this can land in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,” Bjerke told Dagsavisen.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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