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Romania28 January 2005

Secret police tap phones of two journalists

Reporters Without Borders today criticised the tapping of the phones of two Romanian journalists working for foreign media as a violation of the right not to reveal journalistic sources and called on the government to comply with European standards in the matter.

Intelligence service chief Radu Timofte admitted on 26 January to the Mediafax news agency that he had tapped the phones of two journalists, whose names and employers he refused to disclose, because they were suspected of spying.

"The right not to reveal sources of information is a cornerstone of press freedom too important for any exceptions to be made," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "Romania must observe European standards, notably article 10 of the European Human Rights Convention, be open about phone-tapping and end outdated habits of secrecy," it said in a letter to justice minister Monica Macovei.

The revelation came two days after the Bucharest daily Ziua published a copy of an October 2003 letter from the interior ministry’s intelligence chief, Virgil Ardelean, to the national anti-corruption bureau proposing that the phones of Mediafax and the AM Press news agency be tapped. He said he needed to verify reports about an inspector he said was leaking details of investigations to "unauthorised people" at the two news agencies.

The interior ministry admitted on 24 January the letter was genuine but said that in the end neither the phones of the two agencies or any other had been tapped. The disclosure caused outrage and press freedom groups such as the Media Monitoring Agency, as well as members of parliament, called for an enquiry. Interior minister Vasile Blaga said on 25 January he would sack Ardelean if he had broken the law.

Intelligence chief Timofte then admitted he had tapped the phones of the two unnamed journalists, saying only that they worked for "little-known magazines" and "foreign media."

Legal confidentiality rules blocked any further details. An intelligence service spokesman said only that there was "some evidence" about the journalists’ "involvement in gathering information for foreign intelligence agencies and being paid for it."

It was the first time since the intelligence service was founded in 1990 (replacing the Ceaucescu regime’s dreaded Securitate) that it had publicly admitted tapping journalists’ phones, though it has often been accused of spying on the media. Under the communist regime, about 700,000 people are thought to have had their phones tapped.

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