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United Kingdom15 July 2002

Reporters Without Borders supports British media in appeal to rights court over protection of sources

Reporters Without Borders today backed five major British media - The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Times and Reuters news agency - in their planned appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against efforts to make them hand over confidential documents to the authorities.

The organisation stressed that protecting a journalist’s right not to reveal sources of information was "the only guarantee of independent investigative journalism" and called on the Court to continue to condemn, as it did on 26 March 1996, countries that attacked that right. It said current attempts in Europe to undermine protection of journalistic sources were "particularly worrying."

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard noted that five members of the European Union - France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom - were "regularly challenging" the right to confidentiality, which he called "the pillar of press freedom."

He called on the Human Rights Court president, Luzius Wildhaber, to "sharply condemn countries that persist in threatening one of the keys to freedom of information in Europe."

The five British media are refusing to hand over documents sent to them anonymously containing allegedly false information which, when published, is thought to have caused the share price of the brewery firm Interbrew to fall. The media are resisting an initial order last year to hand them over. The British House of Lords, the country’s highest court, refused this month to hear an appeal against that ruling, so they are appealing to the European court against violation of the right to confidentiality and the right to freedom of expression.

Reporters Without Borders notes recent efforts in the five countries to undermine protection of sources.

In Northern Ireland, journalists Lena Ferguson and Alex Thomson were warned on 3 May this year that they would be charged with contempt of court in Belfast if they refused to reveal the names of four British soldiers they interviewed in 1997 in exchange for a promise of anonymity, as part of a Channel 4 TV documentary about the shootings in the province on "Bloody Sunday," 30 January 1972.

In Belgium, journalists Douglas de Coninck and Marc Vandermeir, of the daily De Morgen, were ordered by a Brussels court on 29 May this year to pay a fine of _25 for every hour they refused to reveal their sources for an article they had written saying that Belgian State Railways had overshot its budget. The rolling fine was only lifted after strong national and international public pressure.

In Italy, the home and office of journalist Guido Ruotolo, a columnist with the daily La Stampa, were searched by police on 3 May this year after his paper printed material about an anti-terrorist investigation.

In Luxembourg, the home of freelance journalist Jean Nicolas was searched by police on 1 March this year and all his computer equipment confiscated. A warrant had been issued for his arrest for "stealing a criminal investigation file" and the proofs of a book he was about to publish on money-laundering were in the computer.

In France, challenges to the confidentiality of sources are frequent. Jean-Pierre Rey, a photo-journalist with the Gamma agency, was held for interrogation for nearly four days in Paris last September by the National Anti-Terrorist Service (DNAT) and later denounced the pressure put on him to reveal his sources concerning Corsica.

Four other journalists were pressured in a similar way by French legal officials last year and in 2000. Tapping of several journalists’ phones, revealed in January this year, is another serious violation of the right to protect sources. Reporters Without Borders has been calling since last September for the code of criminal procedure (Article 109, paragraph 2) to be amended to strengthen this right.

International institutions themselves fail to respect this basic right. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) decided on 9 June this year to order ex-Washington Post reporter Jonathan Randal to give evidence about an interview he had in 1993 with a former Bosnian Serb leader. He had already refused to answer a summons by the court to testify at the trial of Bosnian Serb leaders Momir Talic and Radoslav Brdjanin.

The amendment by the European Union of the 1997 European directive on protection of telecommunications data and information was approved by the European Parliament this May. This will oblige member-countries to pass laws allowing retention of data about telephone and electronic communications traffic and make it easier to monitor who journalists contact.

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