Saturday, December 1, 2007

Justice prevails for journalism

Principles before personalities

“Facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper.” -Mother Teresa, 1990

“The press is the enemy” -Richard Nixon, 1969

The above two quotes sum up the ongoing drama in Europe today. Mother Teresa with humility accepted the fact while President Nixon expressed the inherent fear of being exposed.

In Europe, justice prevailed last week when the European Court of Human Rights upheld the right of German journalist Hans- Martin Tillack to protect his sources. The court ruling ordered Belgium to pay him 10,000 Euro in damages and 30,000 Euro for court expenses. “The right of journalists to keep their sources secret ... is a true attribute of the right to information which is to be treated with the utmost regard,” the Strasbourgbased court ruled in a judgment handed down last Tuesday.

The European Court of Human Rights, which is not a European Union body, said that the ability of journalists to protect the identity of sources “could not be considered a mere privilege to be granted or taken away.”

The judgment also noted that the claims against Tillack were based on “vague and un-sustained rumours” and that the authorities were unclear whether the sums said to have been paid amounted to 8,000 Euro or DEM 8,000.

Welcoming the judgement Tillack told New Europe, “I was very happy about the judgement in Strasbourg, but I’m shocked that nobody in OLAF and the EU Commission seems to want to learn the lesson from that.

“What we need is a full investigation of how EU Commission and OLAF had prepared the action against me and how they convinced the Belgians to act according to OLAF’s wishes.

“The EU-Commission and OLAF still have to learn to accept that press freedom implies that they may read embarrassing news about themselves in the press. In this case, OLAF officials have been caught misleading the European Parliament, Public Prosecutors and the EUOmbudsman. One should not allow them to do that again.”

Commenting on the ruling Aidan White, the general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists said “At last, this shocking violation of journalists’ rights has been rectified.” White had been instrumental in calling for an investigation into the action against Tillack.

The European commission washed its hands off the episode as Johannes Laitenberger, a spokesman for the European commission pointed out that Belgium, rather than the European Union institutions, had been found at fault.

But at the press conference with journalists later, Alessandro Buttice, Head Spokesman, Communication and PR Unit of OLAF along with his deputy defended OLAF actions that saw Belgian police raid the home of a journalist. Buttice also laid the basis of the case on a then European commission official calling that a “qualified witness” who had given them “demonstration” in writing that “probably” an EU official had been paid to provide the information but OLAF had admitted getting its information from a European Commission official who said he had been told secondhand of the alleged bribe.

Defending the action of OLAF as acting on the principle of “zero tolerance,” as “what any police in any EU country will do to transfer it to judiciary” and “after that what judiciary does according to their national laws,” said Buttice, adding, “We don’t have a choice if there is information of a crime.”

During a raid on the house of Tillack in 2004, Belgian police had seized documents, two computers, four portable telephones and a filing cabinet. The authorities had said they were acting on claims that Tillack had paid an official to provide confidential documents, which is an offence under Belgian law. Tillack denied having done so, and no charges have been made against him. Belgium, however, changed the law in 2005 to protect journalists’ sources.

“The law of protection of journalistic sources would not allow these raids now,” said Annaik de Voghel, the spokeswoman of Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx was cited in media as saying. But she clarified that raids were now only allowed at the request of an investigative judge if the information was vital to prevent someone being harmed, such as to prevent a bomb or to find a kidnapped child.

In 2002, Tillack had written a series of articles about alleged financial irregularities at the European Union’s statistics arm Eurostat with headquarters in Luxembourg. Working for the German weekly Stern, Tillack had reported that the OLAF was dragging its feel while trying to root out illegal activities but that set the OLAF on a hunt to trace down Tillack’s source.

Coming back to the articles that provoked all this trouble for Tillack and made other journalists take note of the situation, are yet to see fruits of the toil as no charges have yet been filed over the Eurostat fraud allegations, according to the OLAF. But OLAF announced two dossiers have been sent by an examining magistrate to the prosecutor in Luxembourg, and a separate judicial investigation is still under way in Paris.

The journalists were treating the case as a precedent test of the rights of reporters to keep sources confidential. In replying to a journalist’s question about the future course of action in similar cases of leaks whether the OLAF will investigate the journalist, the OLAF spokesmen said, “If there is a crime or corruption, yes but just for leak no.”

An earlier ruling in October 2006 from the European Union’s Court of First Instance in Luxembourg had dismissed Tillack’s claim for damages, saying it had no reason to get involved. Moreover, the European Union Ombudsman, in a report two years ago, ruled that OLAF’s suspicions were based merely on rumours.

Summing up the comments of the participating journalists at the press conference, Lorenzo Consoli, President of International Press Association put two points in perspective:

First, the journalists were surprised that the OLAF did not clearly welcome the judgement from ECHR and which would have been a way to distance itself from the unacceptable behaviour of the Belgian police in the case of Tillack.

Second, the fact that they were criticised for basing the demand for Belgian authorities to act on the two alleged crimes, corruption and leakage of secrets which were based on only one “demonstration” of one person who was just reporting rumours and was not a direct witness.

The question arises: Why didn’t they go further in depth in internal inquiry in order to substantiate the allegations before involving Belgian authorities?

Last but not the least the journalists demanded that Franz-Hermann Bruner, the Director of the European Anti-Fraud Office should come at a press conference in immediate future to clarify the (OLAF) position on these two points.Belgium is the host of major international institutions like NATO and is capital of European Union with its executive European commission having headquarters along with European Parliament and European Council here and there are thousands of lobby groups.

With the clarity dawning on the case and in the light of new Belgium law passed in 2005, which reinforced the rights of journalists and would not permit this kind of raid today, it seems its time for the OLAF, the Anti-fraud agency to concentrate on real matters of fraud and benefit from writings of the journalist as whistleblowers.

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