Archive for September, 2010

Who are the worst?

The Dutch ministry of Economy this week received an award for being the most obstructive authority in the Netherlands when it comes to transparency, it was selected as thee Wob Obstructor of 2010 in the context of the international Right To Know Day, that also was celebrated in Brussels by the European Ombudsman.

The Dutch  “winner” of the anti-award was selected yesterday in the context of the Dutch celebration of the Right To Know Day, which focuses the citizens right to a transparent administration. The Dutch ministry was named and shamed because of a case, where it had delayed the answer on an access to documents request following alleged irregularities in information sharing before the Dutch election this summer, a comment could not yet be obtained.

Naming and shaming was also on the agenda at the Right to Know Day event in Brussels by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros. However the naming and shaming was more politely wrapped in reports and recommendations by the invited speakers.

The European Ombudsman deals with complaints from European citizens. More than one third of his workload are complaints about lacking transparency in the EU system , several of which Diamandouros has found to be right.

“It is with a certain degree of concern that I have noted the consistently high number of complaints alleging lack of transparency during the past years. After all, an accountable and transparent EU administration is key to building citizens’ trust in the EU,” the ombudsman said in his speech at the Right to Know Day in Brussels.

Selected links from the Right To Know Day 2010
www.Woberator.nl – newly launched website to teach people how to wob in the Netherlands

Legal Leaks published an overview over WoBs, click on Country Information

Read the speech by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros or his press-release with a sum-up of his speech

Transparency International published a paper over the differences in European WoBs

Article 19 published an overview over wob-developments in the past year

The magazine Governance published an article about the effect of the British WoB on public administration

The FOI advocates published a map with some of the Right To Know Day activities

Dutch journalist magazine De Nieuwe Reporter published and article about wobbing the EU

Read more about wobbing at www.wobbing.eu.

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Ram raids and sources

Whining engines, smell of rubber, gasoline in the blood and excitement! In January 2002 an illegal street race was held in the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands. Journalists from the magazine Autoweek were allowed to cover the race and take pictures after they promised not to disclose their sources identity.

Of course they journalists intended to keep their promise. But after the editor was held by police for hours and after threats of closing down and sealing the entire publishing house, the editors gave up and handed over a cd-rom with the pictures of the race to the police.

This week a judgment from the highest human rights court in Europe states: This is not acceptable. Decisions on seizure of material on source has to be through judicial evaluation before the seizure.

The case took its beginning a Friday morning, when a police officer turned up at Autoweek’s office at the Sanoma publishing house and asked to get the pictures from the race some weeks previous. This request could not be met, she was informed, the pictures were part of the journalists’ promise not to disclose their sources.

From that morning in early February 2002 the story went all the way to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where it was decided this week.

The judgment is of high importance according to one of Europe’s leading experts on the protection of sources, Dirk Voorhoof, who is media law professor at the University of Gent and also teaches at the University of Copenhagen.

“The judgment of the Grand Chamber has manifestly added an extra layer of protection for journalistic sources. There is no doubt that to be in line with the Court’s application of Article 10 ECHR in matters of protection of journalistic sources, member states shall now build in additional procedural safeguards in terms of an ex ante judicial review based on clear criteria,” he writes in a blog on the Strasbourg Observers Blog.

Any ex-ante judicial review was not applied that February Friday in 2002. Later that particular two police officers had shown up at the publishing house of Autoweek, this time with a message from the public prosecutor saying, that the editor should release the pictures. In a phone conversation the public prosecutor explained Autoweek’s lawyers, that “it concerned a matter of life and death”. What the content of the concern was, was not disclosed to the publishing house.

Friday evening was approaching, and police threatened to arrest the editor over the weekend, unless the images were handed over to the police. No particularly cosy offer. But what was worse for any good mediaperson was, that police also threatened to close and seal the entire publishing house over the weekend. An absolute catastrophy in a publishing house with magazine production as Sanoma: This particular weekend the Dutch crown-prince Willem-Alexander was to marry his loved one, the beautiful Maxima with the Argentine family.

Friday night the editor of Autoweeek was indeed held by police for foru hours, and in the course of the night Sanoma’s lawyers decided to hand over the cd with the images.

A clear breach of journalists obligation to protect their source in the view of Sanoma, the publisher of Autoweek. So Sanoma went all the way through the Dutch court system and further on to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. A judgment in Strasbourg creates precedent immediately valid in all countries, who are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights.

The court in Strasbourg for years had set high standards for the protection of journalist’s sources as an essential part of the freedom of expression. If sources can not feel safe, they will not talk, and possibly valuable information will not be accessible.

But in the Sanoma case things went the other direction in the first instance. In March 2009 the judges in Strasbourg decided, that being forced to hand over the pictures in this particular cases did not constitute a breach of article 10 – the one about freedom of expression. Media lawyers and journalists were concerned.

But Sanoma was willing to go on and along with an alliance of journalist-organisations requested a Grand Chamber hearing – which was decided this week.

Why police wanted the pictures in the first place?

Well, there had been a ram raid nearby, where robbers had used a shovel loader to break an ATM machine out of a wall, and they had escaped in an Audi car. It was this car, the police now was looking for. However the Grand Chamber – contrary to the Dutch prosecutor – did not consider this investigation a question of “life and death”.

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