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Belgium27 January 2005

Police question two journalists in new attack on confidentiality of sources

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the interrogation on 25 January of reporter Anne De Graaf and editor Yves Desmet of the Flemish-language newspaper De Morgen about their sources for a May 2004 report on police fears about a terrorist attack in Antwerp.

They were questioned by members of a police supervisory committee at the newspaper’s headquarters as witnesses in an investigation by federal prosecutors and Antwerp judge Marc De Hous into unauthorised police leaks. In particular, they were asked about calls made on De Graaf’s phone between 23 March and 8 May 2004.

"Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns this attack on the right to the confidentiality of sources, which is an inviolable principle," the press freedom organisation said.

"This violation is all the more shocking as it came just two days before a senate vote on a bill giving more protection for the confidentiality of Belgian journalists’ sources, so we call on the judicial authorities to respect article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and to not try to turn journalists into police auxiliaries."

De Graaf’s report said the Antwerp police and the federal prosecutor’s office met secretly to discuss the threat of a terrorist attack. An Al-Qaeda member was suspected of wanting to blow up a tunnel in Antwerp. Bart Debie - then Antwerp police superintendent and now an extreme right-wing parliamentarian - was present at the meeting and is suspected of being the source of the leak.

A search was carried out at his office on 18 January and police found that seven phone calls took place between De Graaf and him. De Graaf has never denied contacting Debie, but she said it was to "verify information."

De Graaf has accused the authorities of causing her professional and personal harm. "Since it was announced the police screened by phone calls, I have been unable to work," she said. "The file of contacts that I have building for more than 15 years suddenly disintegrated yesterday. Everyone I call hangs up immediately because they think they are being tapped. Furthermore, the police had access to sources who had nothing to do with that May 2003 article. I think the sources were above all linked to the Dutrou trial which I’ve been covering for the newspaper."

Reporters Without Borders said it was therefore clear there has never been such a great need for new legislation in Belgium recognising the right of journalists to conceal their sources.

The senate is supposed to vote today in a plenary session on a bill protecting sources. Under this proposed new law, no journalists could henceforth be prosecuted for protecting confidential information or complicity in the violation of professional secrecy.

The bill proposes one exception : if the source of information is likely to prevent a crime that constitutes a serious threat to a person’s safety, the journalist much reveal the source when requested by a judge. If approved by the senate, the bill will go back to the lower house.

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