Netflix sued over series on murder of Swedish prime minister

Streaming giant Netflix has been sued for defamation over its drama series The Unlikely Murderer, which depicts the main suspect as guilty of killing Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.

Netflix sued over series on murder of Swedish prime minister
Robert Gustafsson as Stig Engström, watching Olof Palme and his wife, in the Netflix series The Unlikely Murderer. Photo: Netflix

A claim submitted to Sweden’s Chancellor of Justice which prosecutes freedom of expression cases, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, argues that the portrayal of former advertising consultant Stig Engström as the gunman constitutes “a crystal clear case of defamation”.

Engström, who was known for his staunch opposition to Palme’s leftwing policies and who died in 2000, was in June 2020 named as the main suspect in the case that has gripped the Scandinavian country for more than three decades.

But chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said that because Engström was dead no charges could be pressed and the case was closed.

Palme was gunned down on the evening of February 28th, 1986, after leaving a Stockholm cinema with his wife, having dismissed his bodyguards for the evening.

He was shot in the back by his assailant, who fled the scene and left the 59-year-old to die in a pool of blood on the sidewalk.

Engström presented himself to police as a witness early on in the investigation.

In the five-part Netflix series, based on a 2018 award-winning book by investigative reporter Thomas Pettersson, the then 52-year-old Engström is depicted shooting Palme, then covering up his actions by posing as a witness.

The portrayal has sparked controversy in Sweden.

Netflix has defended the show as a fictional dramatisation inspired by Pettersson’s book. A text at the end of each episode says just that, and notes that Engström has not been proven to be the murderer.

The identity of the person who submitted the defamation lawsuit is classified, the Chancellor of Justice’s office told AFP on Tuesday.

Engström’s ex-wife Margareta has criticised the series’ portrayal of her, telling public broadcaster SVT that the show’s suggestion she knew more about her husband’s involvement than she let on was a “personal attack”.

However, she said she didn’t plan to take on Netflix, saying “it would be a nightmare and cost a lot of money” to hire lawyers.

Under Swedish law you can be taken to court for defaming the dead, if it is damaging to close relatives or dishonours the reputation of the deceased. But the bar to press charges is set very high, so it is relatively rare.

Legal expert Mårten Schultz pointed out in an article in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper that the Chancellor of Justice only prosecutes crimes that have been committed in media protected by the constitution, which for digital media means they need to have applied for a Swedish publishing certificate. He noted that it looked like Netflix had not done so, in which case it’s a matter for a regular prosecutor.

Netflix is facing a number of libel suits over other series, including the 2015 hit Making a Murderer.

Chief prosecutor Petersson was also criticised last year for publicly naming a dead suspect, but said public interest in the case justified his decision.

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