Index on Censorship reports on a EU ruling which jeopardises a journalist´s right to protect sources. (10-NOV-04)

In a blow to the campaign to protect journalistic sources, the European Court of Justice has given the European anti-fraud office (OLAF) permission to examine material seized during a raid on a German journalist’s home and offices in Brussels. On 15 October 2004, the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg dismissed a submission to block the inspection and recommended that the applicants, Hans-Martin Tillack of German news magazine Stern and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), turn to the Belgian courts.

Tillack is well known for his reports on fraud, irregularities and cases of cover-up in the European Union and was responsible for exposing the scandal at Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, in 2002. His stories upset ministers, Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament alike.  However, it wasn’t one of his latest allegations that got Tillack into trouble with the police but one of the reports regarding Eurostat, published two years earlier.

Allegations of revenge
In what Stern’s chief editor called “a massive attack on press freedom”, Belgian police took the correspondent into custody on 19 March 2004 and raided his home and office, seizing computers, mobile phones, address books, bank statements and notes. A Belgian judge issued the search warrant on suspicion of Tillack being involved in the bribery of an EU official after OLAF alleged that the journalist had paid for confidential information in 2002. At the time, Tillack got hold of a leaked report by the anti-fraud unit, alleging that close collaborators of Commission President Romano Prodi were suspected of covering up irregularities. Once the Stern article based on the OLAF report was published, the anti-fraud office was heavily criticised for the leak. According to Tillack the bribery allegations are false and absurd – they are, he says, an act of revenge on behalf of the anti-fraud unit. Tillack was later forwarded a confidential email in which an OLAF spokesman admitted that the accusations against the journalist were based on rumours. In 2003, EU ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandourus asked OLAF to either prove their allegations or else withdraw them. Raymond Kendall, chairman of the supervisory committee overseeing OLAF, told a hearing at Britain’s House of Lords in May 2004 that the allegations were made “purely on the basis of hearsay” and that the anti-fraud office was probably trying to get back at the journalist. Four months later, ombudsman Diamandouros got involved again and asked OLAF to send him comprehensive information about the Tillack case until 30 November 2004.   

While the journalist was released after 10 hours of questioning on 19 March, his possessions and notes remain with the police. With Tillack mostly relying on confidential inside sources for his investigative reports, the confiscated material contains information that could lead police and the European Commission to a number of sources and informants whom officials might wish to shut up. Considering the long-term implications of the inspection, Tillack said that once nobody in Brussels and Strasbourg dares talk to the press. Stern’s chief editor accused the Belgian judicial system of trying to “shut up critical reporters”.

Belgium: poor record on protecting journalists
Commenting on the European Courts’ recommendation to seek relief in the Belgian courts, the IFJ said a lawsuit in Belgium would have little chance of success due to the poor levels of legal protection for journalistic confidentiality in the country. The Belgian Parliament is currently discussing a law on protection of journalists’ sources, but the IFJ expects that it will take months until the new rules are ratified and enforced. “This decision fails to protect journalists from officials fishing through their confidential files”, said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, according to a statement released after the ruling in Luxembourg. “It fails to deal with our concerns and passes the matter over to a legal regime in which, to be frank, journalists have little confidence.” According to the IFJ, attacks on journalistic confidentiality in recent years have occurred more often in Belgium than in any other western European country. 

At a conference about whistleblowing and accountability in EU institutions in September 2004, the IFJ called for protective measures for whistleblowers and a comprehensive review of EU transparency rules and communications policy. IFJ General Secretary Aidan White warned that a culture of censorship within European Union institutions was leading to the victimisation of civil servants daring to come forward with information about corruption, inefficiencies and fraud. 

Link: Stern Magazine