Monday, October 18, 2004

Journalists protecting their sources? Not in the EU

We return to the Tillack case, which we have covered not once, but twice already. (Um, three times.) However, it is not about to go away. Hans Martin Tillack, a journalist with the Stern magazine, was not known for particularly sceptical views about the European Union. This may have changed as a result of the treatment he has received and continues to receive. Or it may not.

Whatever his political views, he is clearly a good journalist and he wrote a series of extremely hard hitting pieces about EU fraud and the shenanigans within its institutions. It was clear that much of his information came from inside sources, in particular, probably from OLAF, the Commission’s fraud-busting organization that has had a somewhat chequered reputation itself.

Tillack’s flat and office were raided by the Belgian police in March, his documents and computer confiscated and he himself kept incommunicado for ten hours. His crime, allegedly, was the bribing of an official inside OLAF. This charge was quickly dropped but his papers stayed confiscated and it became obvious that the police raid had been carried out at the behest of OLAF, which is keen to identify Mr Tillack’s sources.

Backed by his publisher and the International Federation of Journalists, Mr Tillack filed a lawsuit at the European Court, his intention being to block the Commission’s access to his documents, still with the Belgian police. If OLAF or the Commission managed to get hold of them, Mr Tillack argued, his sources would be compromised.

A journalist’s right not reveal his (or her, for that matter) sources has been acknowledged, however grudgingly, by all the governments in the free world and has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. This is not an EU court but of the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, it is supposed to provide guidance to civic and human rights throughout Europe.

Let us also remember that the EU prides itself on its supposed historical heritage of freedom, democracy and human rights. Despite that, the ECHR has had to rule in the past against the EU courts in defence of press freedom and the need to protect journalistit sources.

The EU Court of First Instances has ruled against Tillack, deciding that the case was strictly Belgian matter, despite clear evidence that the Commission had organized the raid, his arrest and the confiscation of papers. The Commission will, presumably, now allowed to sift through the documents and deal with the possible sources as it sees fit.

This is not quite the situation in, for instance, Russia, where Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe has complained about the constant harassment meted out to its journalists and the highly regarded Valentina Politkovskaya was poisoned on her way to cover the Beslan siege. Nevertheless, such a cavalier disregard of the essentials of press freedom ought to worry some people. Strangely, there has been hardly any coverage in the British media. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has been following the story and wrote about it today in the Daily Telegraph; over the week-end there was a piece on EUObserver; today the Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story. One assumes Stern will write about it in due course. What of the others?

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