Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Tillack case again

We have covered the Tillack case once or twice before. It is time to return to it, as events have taken an interesting turn.

Last month, Hans-Martin Tillack, the former Brussels correspondent of the German magazine Stern was awarded the Leipzig Prize for the Freedom and the Future of the Media. This was given to Herr Tillack jointly with Seymour M. Hersh, Britta Petersen and Anna Politkovskaya.

There are, however, certain differences in the lives and careers of the four journalists. Mr Hersh is a long-standing American investigative journalist who has a number of political scalps to his credit, though, oddly enough, all of them seem to be Republican. Must be an accident, since it is unlikely that a canny and experienced hack would not have noticed that there has been the odd problem or two with Democrats as well.

Mr Hersh’s latest coup was the publication of the shocking Abu Ghraib pictures, though it ought to be pointed out that what he managed to find was a leak from the ongoing Pentagon administration. Still, those pictures had to go into the public domain.

Mr Hersh, needless to say, has suffered no ill consequences either personally or professionally, as is only right and proper in a society that values freedom, however inconvenient that might be.

Britta Petersen is also a remarkable person. She reported from Afghanistan in 2002 for the Financial Times Deutschland. While there she realized that our ordinary understanding of journalism was inadequate for the understanding of the war-torn country.

It seems that what she meant was that the concept of independent media is a difficult one to establish in countries like Afghanistan, though as German media outlets tend to be linked to political parties, it may not be the best example to take.

Ms Petersen’s response was surprisingly sensible: she founded the Free Press Initiative, which unites experienced journalists to train beginners in Afghanistan. Apparently, she travels outside Kabul – a most unusual course of action for journalists or, for that matter, NGO workers of any kind – and, thus, puts her life in danger. Still, she is highly valued by the society in which she functions.

Then there is Anna Politkovskaya. Her case is in a very different league. She is an astonishingly courageous woman who has written truthful and shattering accounts of developments in Russia and of the war of attrition the Russian army is waging against Chechnyan civilians.

Ms Politkovskaya, being one of only two journalists who has managed to penetrate into Chechnya and the surrounding areas (the other one being Arkady Babitsky, also on the Russian hit-list) was trying to make her way to the Beslan siege last autumn when she was poisoned and barely escaped with her life. Neither she nor Babitsky, who was, at the same time, arrested on trumped-up charges of hooliganism in Moscow, managed to get to the school siege and report on it.

Where can we put Hans-Martin Tillack on this scene? While he has not suffered to the extent Ms Politkovskaya has, neither has his life been too easy. After writing articles about abuses in OLAF, the Commission’s anti-fraud office and a book about corruption in the EU (from a basically Europhile point of view, one may add, though whether he still holds that opinion must remain doubtful) Herr Tillack was arrested, his home and office raided, his notes and computer confiscated.

Tillack was held by the Belgian police for ten hours, while they looked for evidence that he had bribed officials at OLAF to obtain information. They came up with charming little comments about wishing they were in Burma or Central Africa where, according to them, they know how to deal with journalists.

It was subsequently shown conclusively that the request to the Belgian police originated in the OLAF offices and, to add insult to injury, various officials have made public allegations of bribery, none of which have been substantiated.

Tillack and his employers have taken the case to the European Court of Justice demanding the return of the files and the computer. He has had the support of the International Federation of Journalists but, it seems, there is not very much they can do.

Crucially, Tillack and Stern magazine have gone to the German court, demanding that Joachim Gross be prevented from repeating the slander (as there is no evidence) that Tillack had bribed OLAF officials.

In September, the lower court, the Landgericht Hamburg, came down on Herr Tillack’s side and Joachim Gross was banned from repeating the allegation. Gross, supported by the Commission, appealed.

Hamburg’s highest court, the Oberlandesgericht, has found against Tillack and Stern. It is not that Joachim Gross is deemed to have spoken the truth. Far from it. The decision is more interesting than that.

It seems that no court can order a present or former employee of the Commission to desist from spreading lies or slander. A protocol of April 8 1965 grants EU civil servants a life-long immunity from legal proceedings “in respect of acts performed by them in their official capacity, including their words spoken or written”. And that includes setting the Belgian police at an investigative journalist.

What have Mr Hersh and Ms Petersen to say about that?

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