Archive for category Democracy
Struggle for access to documents bears fruit after 11 years: Guest blogger Staffan Dahllöf, co-editor of transparency website Wobbing.eu, sums up the IFAW case.
German chancellor Gerhard Schröder asked EU-Commission to help build an airport runway in an environmental protected area outside Hamburg. Commission president Romano Prodi reacted “RAPIDAMENTE”, we know now.
Chancellor Schröder wrote in a letter to Commission president Prodi:
”I would be extraordinarily grateful if you personally could make sure that there is no legal objection issued from the Commission.”
The German leader was afraid the Commission would object to the building of a runway to an airplane factory in an area called Mühlenberger Loch. The area was protected by EU-rules for the conservation of wild fauna and flora.
Gerhard Schröder wanted to make sure the construction work could go ahead in spite of the protection. More than 4000 jobs are stake, only in the Hamburg region, Schröder wrote to Prodi.
On the letter from Schröder Prodi made a handwritten note in block letters: ”RAPIDAMENTE” (quickly) before passing the request on to his aids. (For a scanned copy of the letter, see Wobbing).
No national veto
The reason we now have access to the correspondence is a lengthy battle for transparency finally won in the European Court of Justice.
After more than eleven years a requested document was forwarded to the German organisation Internationaler Tierschutz-Fonds, an affiliation to the organisation IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).
Scott Crosby, a lawyer representing the German NGO during the process, regards the final outcome of the IFAW-case as an important landmark.
”Member states do not have a right to veto disclosure of documents sent to the EU-institutions,” Crosby told participants at the conference Dataharvets+ in Brussels in the beginning of May.
Appealed to high level
The IFAW-case actually consists of two parts. First there was the legal battle to dismiss the argument that Germany could tell EU-institutions how to handle German documents.
At first the General Court (at the time the Court of First Instance) decided according to the German demands. This judgement was then appealed by Sweden, supported by Finland leading to a reverse decision by Court of Justice in 2008.
Member States ”may request” that their documents are not disclosed, but they do not have ”a general and unconditional right of veto”, the judges made clear.
Then came a second round.
To protect German policy
Germany and the Commission still did not want to reveal the lobbying letter, arguing the content should be hidden to protect ”the economic policy of the Community or a Member State”, a reason to refuse disclosure laid down in the access rules for EU-institution (Regulation 1049/2001, article 4.1 a third indent).
This argument was first accepted by the General Court, but then appealed and later set aside by the Court of Justice
The reason why?
The General Court had not itself read the disputed document!
The lower chamber was therefor ”not in a position to assess in the specific case whether access to the document could validly be refused”, the higher instance dryly remarked.
Operation succesful, the patient died
Then did the German NGO finally get the requested document? Yes they did, some one and a half year later. Things have a tendency to take time in matters like this.
All in all, transparency won and the attempt to hide Gerhard Schröder’s pressure letter failed.
Only catch is that the process took eleven years.
The controversial runway was built in the mean time.
Neither Gerhard Schröder nor Romano Prodi holds their official positions any longer.
The documents of the Court can be found here.
All 13 Danish MEPs will vote to prevent an MEP candidate from becoming new EU Ombudsman in two weeks. Former Danish Ombudsman Hans Gammeltoft-Hansen joins choir of critics.
Each of the 13 Danish MEPs will vote to prevent an MEP from winning the election for new EU Ombudsman next plenary.
The Danish MEPs fear that the institution will lose trust among citizens as well as journalists, if a candidate goes directly from being an MEP to taking office as EU Ombudsman, writes Danish magazine Journalisten.
There are six candidates for the post. Three are MEPs. They are running against e.g. the Irish and the Dutch national Ombudsmen.
“It is a scandal,” says Danish Green MEP Margrete Auken.
“This is the same as if a long-serving member of the Danish Folketing was elected Ombudsman in Denmark. This would never ever happen,” she says to Journalisten.
Some of the Danish MEPs who are voting for independent candidates do have candidates from within their own political groups. This goes for the five Danish Social Democrats, the one Danish conservative, and the right-wing Morten Messerschmidt.
But neither will vote for their own group candidates.
“We think it is a good tradition that the Ombudsman is 100 percent independent,” says MEP Dan Jørgensen (S&D).
“It has to be a non-political institution. I do not really think you can accuse the political candidates of anything, but it is the wrong signal to send,” says MEP Bendt Bendtsen (EPP-ED).
All other Danish MEPs also vote for independent candidates, Journalisten writes.
“This is preposterous, and I cannot even understand how it came to this. To make the Ombudsman part of the political battle of seats is a total misunderstanding,” says MEP Morten Løkkegaard (ALDE).
The former Danish Ombudsman, Hans Gammeltoft-Hansen, has also voiced his concerns. On Danish Broadcasting’s P1, he said:
“I really hope that a majority in the European Parliament will choose a person, who appears independent – which is hard, not to say impossible, if you go straight from a long and heavy political career.”
On the other hand, many MEPs also defend the election of an MEP as Ombudsman. In a number of internal e-mails from Parliament, which Journalisten cites, the debate goes both ways.
Who else can be better qualified for this job to understand citizens’ concerns than a former parliamentarian?” writes MEP Doris Pack in one e-mail to colleagues.
“If MEPs cannot be an Ombudsman politicians shouldnt be Commissioners, High Reps or Presidents of the Council as they also deal with governments from different political families as well as issues derived from their sister political parties,” writes MEP Charles Tannock in another.
Is it the Nordics against the Southerners in the fight for more transparency in the EU? Is it old-fashioned bureaucracy against modern administration? Is it power structures against the citizens?
The fight for more transparency in the EU seems stuck after the Danish presidency gave up on finding a solution for new access to documents rules, among connoisseurs known as 1049/01.
Finnish MEP Anneli Jäätteenmäki in a comment on Wobbing.eu sums it up like this:
The Danish Presidency lacked a real political will to push the revision forward this spring. It was not the Presidency’s political priority at all.
The Commission kept its negative attitude in the negotiations. It was not willing to try to find real compromises. It did not move even one centimeter forward in the negotiations. Instead, it was just requiring more restrictions and exceptions.
The European Parliament negotiating team lead by Rapporteur Michael Cashman was working hard in order to find an agreement. It was ready to compromise but not to take steps backwards in the name of transparency.
Jäätteenmäki argues, that after the collapse of the negotiations under the Danish presidency, the European Parliament should go ahead with an initiative and introduce more openness on the lawmaking procedure. She suggests making public all votes in the committees and plenaries, making public the minutes of the coordinators meetings, and making public the documents from the trialogue meetings.
These are excellent first steps – but aren’t they self-evident in a modern democracy? Good wind, as the wish goes in a sailing nation like Denmark, to the suggestions of Ms. Jäätteenmäki!
This would be a big step in the proactive openness within the EU. However it does not solve the problem of the stranded 1049 reform lingering in legislative nowhere-land. And it does not solve the obstacles or even obstructions to transparency, that journalists and citizens experience on an every day level: access to documents requests that are not answered, access to documents requests that are delayed and delayed again, access to documents requests where existing documents allegedly are not available. This combined with a comparably slow and potentially costly procedure to complain must discourage most of the citizens and many of the time-pressured journalists.
In whose interest?
“Citizens deserve better” writes Jäätteenmäki in her open letter. And in May 2012 two other Nordics, the ministers of Justice of Sweden and Finland, appealed to find “True Friends of Transparency” in another open letter published at Wobbing.eu.
So this must be the time to start over again. Citizens do indeed deserve better. Time to start from scratch with a bill that fulfils the Lisbon Treaty’s requirement for more transparency, includes best practice from open countries such as the Nordics and the United Kingdom, includes experience from those, who actually use the legislation on behalf of the citizens and in favour of transparency such as NGOs, lawyers and journalists.
We are, of course, looking forward to the European Parliament to improve its own practices. But we – the journalists on behalf of our readers, listeners and viewers – also hope for the European Parliament to call upon the Commission to write up a new, acceptable draft for the reform of 1049/01 and from the very beginning of the procedure to include the relevant users of the law.
In the meantime – and in the future – the task is also with the citizens and the journalists on their behalf. Because transparency belongs to us all. It’s not citizens against bureaucrats. It’s about taking care of our democracy: Transparency is a task for all of us!
More than 130.000 people were killed during Yugoslav wars in the 1990ies. On the other side millions dollars of war profits have been earned with sending thousands tons of weapons and ammunition to the battlefields.
Last week the second book of the trilogy In the Name of the State was launched in the Slovene capital Ljubljana. It is called Resell and documents how the UN embargo against weapon sales during the Yugoslav wars was broken. The authors found leads to countries like Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Russia as export countries, logistic headquarters in the Austrian capital Vienna, financial transactions via a Hungarian bank and transfers via off-shore haven Panama. Also the United Kingdom sent military equipment to then Yugoslav republics and provided loans for arms purchases, as did Germany, the authors found based upon studies of thousands of declassified documents and cooperation with journalists in several countries. The access was obtained through the Slovene freedom of information act.
It is a widely accepted theory that Balkan nations are responsible for the bloody disintegration of the Yugoslav federation. But evidence presented in the books indicates that some European countries may have been actively involved in the wars with supplying arms and ammunition to the warring parties. The books describe in detail and based upon port reports, cables, receipts and various other official documents the routes of the weapons and the money.
More than a dozen of ships loaded with contraband arms secretly arrived to the Slovene port of Koper in 1991 and 1992, where they were unloaded and cargo was quickly forwarded to battlefields in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Military and civil intelligence services appear to have been involved in the clandestine operations according to signed and stamped documents, cables and orders obtained by the team. Also Italian, Albanian and Russian Mafia seem to be linked to some actions.
Along with his colleague Matej Šurc, Slovene journalist Blaz Zgaga spent more than three years investigating and analysing thousands of declassified official documents, that were obtained through the Slovene Freedom of Information Act. Journalists from six other countries cooperated in cross-border investigation.
The work already has lead to the award of the special investigative journalism diploma by the CEI SEEMO Award to the Zgaga-Šurc team.
In the trilogy of books the team meticulously describes the routes of smuggling and money transfers [Link to journalismfund article] as found in the released documents. During the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev Zgaga provided further insights into research method and findings, many of which lead to other countries and invite to further research in those countries.
The first strategically important shipment arrived to Slovenia from Bulgaria in June 1991, only a week before the first military clashes in former Yugoslavia. The Danish vessel according to the information obtained appears to have been loaded with five thousand assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and the most important, anti-aircraft and anti-armour missiles, worth 7,8 million German marks. The shipper according to the documents obtained was Bulgarian and the middlemen an Austrian company. Almost simultaneously a British company sent modern military radio stations with encryption capabilities to Slovenia in a deal worth five million pounds, the team of journalists found.
After this success a main arms dealer stepped forward in the summer of 1991. The Greek citizen appears to have used a company registered in Panama with offices at Vienna airport as one of the main channels for smuggling arms to Yugoslav fronts. Debit-credit notes of a bank account opened at a bank in Budapest reveal the company received more than eighty million dollars revenues from Slovene, Croatian and Bosnian customers, according to the authors of the book.
The authors obtained documents that further link the arms trade during the embargo to a Polish state owned company, including the code name of the contact person and the alleged amounts of the transfers that indicate a Polish port as starting point for ex-Soviet army ammunition supplies’ journey to the Adriatic Sea.
The tale of the documents continues to focus on shipments from a Ukrainian port. The declassified documents reveal that the first two shipments passed through the Slovene port of Koper. The ship made two journeys and sailed 96 containers with arms in October and November 1992. All were transported to Croatia by roads. Debit-credit notes confirmed that 60 million dollars were paid by Croatian customers for arms obtained through this channel, and that about 40 millions dollars has been transferred further to sellers of arms.
The last ship of eight was halted by the NATO fleet in Adriatic in 1994, then a trial in Italian city of Turin followed, but all were later acquitted at the court. The obtained documents show that the person, whom the Turin prosecutor assumed to be the leader of the group, sold hundreds of Russian anti-aircraft and anti-armour missiles worth 33,3 million dollars to Slovenia in 1991 and 1992. He offered even modern mobile anti-aircraft system SA-8 Gecko in January 1992, but this deal was cancelled. Several other Russian connections surfaced in the documents.
The first book in the trilogy was published by the Sanje publishing house in June 2011, the 2nd last week and the last will be published in the winter.
The book has been widely debated in Slovene media, where arms deals also surfaced on the political agenda involving the then prime minister as late as 2009.
A selection of the Slovene media picking up the story:
Also EU-applicant neighbouring countries there was significant media coverage, including reports about new revelations in EU-candidate countries. Read more on the website of Journalismfund.eu.
The European Parliament allocated € 1,5 million to investigative journalism research grants in 2010 and 2011. However last week the money has been withdrawn following a long struggle about editorial independence and editorial confidentiality. But the MEPs behind the project vow to continue the work in 2011.
Read the rest of this entry »
Journalists with a good idea for an investigative story with a European angle can now apply for research grants from the European Union. 1,1 million Euro will be distributed in two rounds of applications. The first deadline is on January 15th 2011.
The EU offers research grants for investigative stories, which involve two or more EU countries. Journalists with a good idea for a European or a cross-border story must team up with a colleague from at least one other EU country, find ¼ of the funding for their project and then they can apply.
The independence of the money will be safeguarded by an external “Assistance Body”. It will appoint a jury, maintain a website, administrate the grants and make sure that the experience from the projects is gathered.
A jury of “5-7 independent, reputed experts in journalism, investigative journalism and/or edition in those fields” will decide the awarding of the grants, following predefined rules.
The first round of applications has to be sent to the Commission, while the Assistance body is selected in a call for public tender. However the envelopes with the applications will not be opened by the Commission itself but handed over to the jury via the Assistance body once it is established.
The 1,1 million Euro were granted by the European Parliament as a pilot project, which is now scheduled to run until late 2011. Among the involved MEPs behind the initiative were German green Helga Trüpel, Danish liberal Anne E. Jensen and since his election last year Danish liberal Morten Løkkegaard.
Read more on Journalismfund.eu.
Blank front page as protest: “The gag-law denies citizens the right to be informed”.
Some weeks ago this blog had to show the blank front pages from major Estonian newspapers in protest against a law against protections of journalists’ sources. Today the Watchdog Blog has to show blank front pages again, this time from Italy. “It is necessary to halt that law which defends power’s privacy,” comments police protected mafia-reporter Roberto Saviano in La Repubblica.
The Watchdog Blog is happy that Italian journalist Leo Sisti, an experienced reporter and author covering the fight against corruption and terrorism, has been so kind to write an article about the situation for the Watchdog Blog.
The Gagging Law
By Leo Sisti, L’Espresso, Il Fatto Quotidiano
Readers of “La Repubblica” must have jumped casting a glance to the blank front page of the Italian daily newspaper out in the newsstands Friday June 11. In the center of the page they could read the following message reported on a yellow post it: “The gagging law denies citizens the right of being informed”. After turning the page they could realize how deep the protest was against a new bill approved the previous day by the Upper House sanctioning with jail journalists who publish transcripts of documents or wiretaps stemming from criminal investigations before a case is heard by a judge.
Ezio Mauro, La Repubblica’s editor, explained his exceptional decision with harsh words: the gagging law, doggedly wanted by primeminister Silvio Berlusconi running a center right coalition, “is an authoritarian act of the government on the basic right of citizens -the right of being informed- tied to the journalists’ duties to inform”.
The bill, before coming into force, must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and signed into law by the President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano. But with a law jeopardizing democracy and freedom of speech the protest immediately spread to other newspapers and media, as well as public opinion.
The Turin daily “La Stampa” reported a blank column in its front page on June 11, while Sky Italia, the encrypted TV channel owned by the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch, broadcast the news with a black banner protesting the gagging law. A strike of the Italian journalists is set on July 9.
La Repubblica’s editor Mauro went on to say that “if the law is approved by the Lower House, the Government will decide over the quantity and the quality of the ‘sensitive’ news to be printed by newspapers and therefore known by readers”.
There’s no doubt on what the “sensitive” news are: almost day after day Italian media publish reports on arrests executed against high ranking State officials and politicians in high places on bribery charges. And about Berlusconi pursuing his personal interest in halting leaked transcripts reporting his conversations with high ranking managers of RAI, the State owned broadcaster. According to media reports he repeatedly requested RAI’s general manager, to ban airing critical political talk shows. Moreover during sixteen years since Berlusconi entered the political arena, he promoted up to 40 laws, dubbed “ad personam” (personal laws) that can shield himself from prosecutions and trials.
Berlusconi’s goal appears to be to silence media preventing journalists from reporting information on criminal investigations based on arrest warrants given to attorneys and therefore considered of public knowledge. Until the end of the preliminary investigation it will be possible to publish only a summary of the news. Reporting quotes derived from arrest warrants will be forbidden, unless running risks of being jailed or paying a fine. A time limit of 75 days is set to the duration of eavesdropping, extensions being admitted only in special cases. Authorization for eavesdropping will come no more from a single judge, but a from a three-judge panel. As a result of the publication of leaked documents publishers will be fined from 300.000 euros up to 450.000 euros. If a priest is investigated or arrested, the prosecutor will be obliged to inform priest’s bishop. If a bishop is investigated or arrested, the prosecutor will be obliged to inform the Vatican. Even reporting names of prosecutors will be banned.
Under the new procedure it will take time, or rather years, before a case is heard by judges. And of course the public will never be acquainted with investigations.
Justice minister Angelino Alfano defends his law saying it is intended to protect people not linked to investigations whose names are sometimes reported in the press. But it’s easy to argue that in this case insignificant parts of the transcripts must be classified and kept in special archives run by prosecutors.
Berlusconi’s critics point out the gagging law is similar to a scheme already worked out in the seventies by Licio Gelli, the founder of the outlawed P2 masons lodge, under the name of “Democratic Rebirth’s plan”. According to some commentators Gelli’s plan aimed at setting up an authoritarian government in politics taming magistrates and journalists. Among the 932 members of Gelli’s P2 there were excellent politicians, chiefs of secret services, generals of Carabinieri and Silvio Berlusconi. In 1978 the current prime minister, whose family owns the most important private Tv empire, was initiated into P2’s secret ritual with the card number 1816.
La Repubblica protest website
Roberto Saviano, Italian journalist and author who lives under constant police protection because of his coverage of the mafia, warns against the new law in La Repubblica.
Do we really want to transfer million-euro subsidies to individual recipients in the agro-industry? The latest publication of who got what from the EU farmsubsidies proved that the number of subsidy-millionaires has risen significantly. And right now is the perfect time to talk about it, because right now the future of this money-transfer is being debated.
Each year tax-payers send about €55 billion of to the farming industry, to rural areas and to price-correcting measures for food prices. It is called the Common Agricultural Policy, and it is one of the core businesses of the EU. The reform of this policy has to be finalised before the new budget period decision 2013, so major steps are prepared right now.
Do we, journalists, support the idea of an informed public debate? If yes, we should try to contribute by giving information about this money to the public. And as European public debate goes, we should network amongst each other and then address each our target group.
The current farmsubsidy beneficiaries will – logically – try to keep getting money. New players may try to get hold of money for their purposes. Big landowners and agro-business unite to promote food security and the environment. The commissioner of the environments wants to “green” the policy. Green organisations argue for water protection, development organisations and liberalists against dumping of EU dairy products. And so on – a good auld political debate. Fine.
And even much more important to know, how the money is distributed now.
This week a team of journalists and computer programmers from many European countries met on the initiative of the team behind www.farmsubsidy.org. We ‘locked’ ourselves into a room in Brussels for almost two days. Loads of coffee, tea, sandwiches – and of course wireless internet. The common aim: To analyse the data to find stories for each our readers and viewers. And more importantly: to network in order to find the European or cross-border aspects of the material.
For a start we could present the annual list of top-recipients. Predictably dominated by sugar companies, who are still receiving large amounts because of the latest CAP reform on sugar.
We also have a preliminary list of farmsubsidy millionaires.
Then we have the usual list of anecdotes, including money to an accordion club in Sweden, a skating club in the Netherlands and a billiard club in Denmark. Did anyone mention farmsubsidies? For more details see the harvest-festival-press-release by the Farmsubsidy.org team of May 4th.
So in other words: Back to the old saying of English language journalists: Follow the money. After all: € 55 billion per year is worth journalistic coverage. And a public debate.
April 26th, DPA/Spiegel, Germany, Weapon Industry receives farmsubsidies from the EU (full DPA text quoted by Greenpeace)
May 3rd, Euobserver, Brussels, UK delays publication of EU farm subsidy details till post-election
May 3rd, Maskinbladet, Denmark, Sugar barons reap farmsubsidies
May 4th, Vest.si, Slovenia, The list of 100 largest recipients of farm subsidies
May 4th, Guardian, Britain, EU sugar and dairy companies largest recipients of farm subsidies
May 4th, Landbrugsavisen, Denmark, Prince Joachim and Mærsk get EU subsidies
May 4th, Die Presse.com, Austria, 178 million for French sugar corporation
May 5th, Euobserver, Brussels, Bulgarian minister’s daughter, accordion club get EU farm aid
May 5th, Trud, Bulgaria, 1,5 million EU farmsubsidies to daughter of a former Deputy Minister
May 5th, 24 Casa, Bulgaria, Daughter of former deputy minister gets EU farmsubsidy
May 5th, Politiken, Denmark, Prince Joachim gets 1,9 million Danish Crowns from the EU
May 5th, N-TV, Germany, For dead Swedes and surf schools – strange farmsubsidies
May 5th, Bild.de, Germany, Bavaria gets most EU farmsubsidies
May 5th, Agrarheute.com, Germany/Britain Farmsubsidy legt Analyse der europäischen Zahlungsempfänger vor
May 5th, Farmers Guardian, Britain, Civil servants criticised for withholding CAP data
May 5th, Finfacts, Ireland, Number of EU Agricultural Policy mmillionaires raises by 20 % in 2009
May 5th, Guardian, Britain, Who received EU farm subsidies last year? Whitehall won’t say
May 5th, Financial Times, Britain, EU pays subsidies to sugar groups
May 5th, Euractiv.de, Germany, EU-Farm-money: Topincome, lacking transparency, corruption
May 5th, N24.de, Germany, Farmsubsidies for billiardclubs, footballplayers and the death
May 5th, Telegraph, Britain, Accordion players and ice skaters get EU farm subsidies
May 5th, Journalul.ro, Romania, Bizarre beneficiaries of EU agricultural funds
May 5th, Ervhervsbladet, Denmark, The Prince and Mærsk get million-crown subsidies
May 5th, Nordjyske, Denmark, Joachim and Mærsk get their share
May 6th, Týden, Czech Republic, Farmsubsidies to the daughter of the minister and ice skating
May 7th, Die Welt, Germany, Blessed are those who receive
May 7th, Eesti Ekspress, Estonia, EU bought for 85 million kruuda butter and skimmed milk
May 9th, Danish Radio P1/European Magazine, Who’s become a millionaire on EU farmsubsidies
May 9th, Agrar Hirek, Hungary, Hungary ranked first in transparency rating of NGO
May 10th, 24 hours, Bulgaria, More farmsubsidies – 1.6 million to the wife of the deputy minister
May 10th, Trud, Bulgaria, And the wife of deputy minister gets 1,6 million farmsubsidies
May 11th, Vest.si, Slovenia, Agricultural subsidies for the Red Cross Slovenia, the Ljubljana Archdiocese and Caritas
May 12th, Farmers Guardian, Britain, More farm subsidy millionaires than ever
May 12th, Farmers Weekly Interactive, Britain, RPA payments create 27 subsidy millionaires
May 13th, Trud, Bulgaria, Prosecutors investigating Peythevs daughter
May 13th, Trud, Bulgaria, Investigate the daughter of former deputy minister
May 14th, Time Magazine, USA, Even in Hard Times, E.U. Agricultural Subsidies Roll On
May 15th, Yorkshire Post, United Kingdom, Exclusive: £1,700 bureaucracy bill to get 1p subsidy cheque to farmers
May 19th, Vest.si, Slovenia, Analysis of EU farmsubsidies distributed in Slovenia
May 29th, Agencia Latino Americana de Informacion, Stiglitz’s lesson regarding the FTA with the European Union
May 21st, Capital Weekly, Bulgaria, Problems in agricultural programs and regulations – and morality
May 30th, Euro.cz, Czech Republic, Who eats an EU grant
June 1st, Mayo News, Ireland, Mayo receives €119m from CAP
June 17th, Guardian Comment, United Kingdom, CAP provides another bumper payout for landowners
July 5th, Guardian Editorial, Common agricultural policy: rotten but here to stay
Three Estonian newspapers today publish empty front pages in protest against a draft law sent to the Estonian parlament today, according to Meelis Mandel, the editor in chief of Business Newspaper Äripëav. Postimees, Ohtuleht and Äripäev where the three papers taking action.
The empty front pages of the three important daily newspapers want to draw attention to a draft law that according to numerous sources would weaken the protection for sources of journalists. In its current form it is considered a severe threat against freedom of expression. Journalists and media people have tried to raise awareness about the law for months.
“The law – if passed – will allow the arrest of investigative journalists and force them to disclose the names of their sources,” Meelis Mandel explains. It would also make it possible for the courts to impose fines on publishers based on the sole suspicion that newspapers have the intention to publish potentially harmful information, before investigative articles even appear.
The law was initiated by government and has now been referred to the Estonian parliament, according to several media sources.
“Estonia currently holds a high position in world press freedom rankings. Passing this law would throw Estonia shamefully backwards,” says Meelis Mandel.
Recently Dirk Voorhoof, a European expert on media law and freedom of expression and media law professor at the University of Gent, visited Estonia and analysed the draft. In its present form, the draft law does not meet the aim of source protection, contrary to what its name says, Voorhoof said to Estonian newspaper Eesti Paevaleht. “The draft law provides extensive exceptions which allow to ignore the principle of source protection and force journalists to disclose their sources. These exceptions do not in any way meet the aim stipulated in the name of the law which is to protect the sources,” Voorhoof noted.
Update 21st of March 2010: See also article in German TAZ.
In Estonia, new draft legislation would allow journalists to be incarcerated for up to one year for protecting their sources. Protection of journalists’ sources is clearly stated in European Human rights practice. This does, apparently, not prevent new attempts to hamper this particular and crucial part of press freedom.
Should the Act be adopted in the given form in the Riigikogu, investigating the mischief of public authorities and public officials would become very complicated for journalists. Much easier, obviously, to write about topics which do not entail the looming breach of source protection for the journalist.
In the summer 2008, Minister of Justice Rein Lang formed a “working group on media freedom legislation”, which went unnoticed by the public. The Ministry remained silent as to the group’s duties.
In November 2009, the representative of the Ministry of Justice proclaimed at a seminar of the Estonian Newspaper Association that following the European example, Estonian journalists too would have their right to protect their sources.
Rein Lang evidently states the opposite. The draft legislation, signed by the Minister, lists over 50 exceptions which oblige journalists to disclose their source to the police, the Prosecutor’s Office and the court. Upon failure to do so, one can be punished with a fine that equals up to 500 daily salaries. Or even face a year in jail, which today seems quite unbelievable. But, if this punishment is not intended to be used, why include it in the law?
After 2004, the press hasn’t been requested to disclose their sources in Estonia. It was then that the Tallinn police brought charges against Eesti Päevaleht reporter Sergo Selder in order to find out the name of the waiter who spat on a cutlet.
During the interrogation, Selder had to endure the policeman’s threats, and was also photographed against the mug-shot background like a prisoner. The investigation was concluded when the Prosecutor’s Office stepped in.
If Lang’s draft legislation had been adopted last year, the silence of the Estonian journalists could have entailed their prosecution and conviction. At the moment, The Code of Ethics of the Estonian Press obliges a journalist to protect confidential information sources.
The Estonian Parliament Riigikogu will start the discussions about the new draft legislation most likely in near future.
The below text was sent to me by Eesti Ekspress reporter Tarmo Vahter, who published it last autumn.
Estonia’s Minister of Justice Threatens to Imprison Journalists
In Estonia, new draft legislation would allow journalists to be incarcerated for up to one year for keeping their sources from the authorities.
Tarmo Vahter, Weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, October 19, 2009
My second and thus far last questioning happened a year ago in the basement of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
On Wismari Street lies Estonia’s most state-of-the-art subterranean proceeding rooms for category-A witnesses / persons to be heard. Mine was numbered 001.
The interior of the room comprised a corner desk, computer and three chairs. One of the walls was probably even see-through from the other side. Like in American police series; so that the colleagues of the interrogator could remain invisible while observing what goes on inside.
Maybe spy Herman Simm, who had been arrested a few weeks earlier, was giving testimony regarding his crimes next door. His ranting could, in any case, not be heard. The interrogator was a special investigator of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Five years my junior, a tall intelligent-looking man in his early thirties.
He began by apologising profoundly for having to interrogate a journalist. He even stressed that he would not demand punishment in case I remained silent.
I was, after all, a witness, and during interrogations witnesses are supposed to answer questions. I promised that I would definitely not lie.
The interrogator’s first question was: “What do you know about the data regarding criminal matter No. 06700000067 reaching the employees of Eesti Ekspress?”
Of course I knew, because it concerned the so-called Rävala puiestee case, which led to the prosecution of the former Minister of the Environment, Villu Reiljan, for accepting gratuities. Upon investigating the crime, the Security Police had tapped the phone calls of the prominent persons. These transcripts were included in the criminal case file as material evidence. The court proceedings over Reiljan are still under way; therefore the file is publicly unavailable to journalists.
Thanks to confidential sources, my colleague Sulev Vedler and I managed to become partially acquainted with the stenographs. We learned dirty details regarding some members of the Estonian elite, e.g., sworn advocate Daisy Tauk.
Tauk had warned her client Aivo Pärn about the “tail” attached by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. How she came to learn about the “tail” has remained a mystery. A politically sensitive story, considering that Tauk is living with Juhan Parts, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communication.
The Code of Ethics of the Estonian Press obliges a journalist to protect confidential information sources. This is what I told the interrogator.
Just in case, I added that I would contemplate disclosure of the source if the resolution of a very dangerous crime depended on it. The leaking of sworn advocate Tauk’s phone calls did not, in my opinion, constitute significant damage to the Republic of Estonia or its people.
The interrogator quickly tapped in my answer and presented the next question. Did the Ekspress source work for the Public Prosecutor’s Office?
“I am unable to answer this question due to reasons provided in my previous answer.”
The interrogator repeated the question in five different ways, each time changing the possible employer of the source. My reply remained the same.
The interrogator then printed the minutes of the interrogation on the spot and gave it to me for review. I found no mistakes and signed it.
I spent a total of ten minutes in the basement of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
In 1996, I was questioned by an investigator of the Central Bureau of Investigation for over three hours with regard to the so-called tape scandal. That was toilsome, but also comical. The late-middle-aged lady didn’t even know how to spell the word “interview”, which I had to spell out to her letter by letter.
In the Parbus case, Ekspress wasn’t interrogated at all
The search for the leak of the Daisy Tauk phone calls ended fruitlessly. Leaks of such a calibre are actually rather rare in Estonia. Meanwhile, Postimees scored with Rein Kilk’s tapped phone call about the so-called “cash-spilling”, which could only have originated from the file of the so-called land exchange criminal case.
Then, Sulev got lucky again. He obtained information regarding the Ivo Parbus criminal case from a well-informed source. Sulev was thus able to write about how some members of the Estonian Centre Party cadged gratuities from real estate developers in Tallinn. The received money enabled a comfortable lifestyle and support for the publishing of the party newspaper Kesknädal.
Shortly after reading Ekspress, the Public Prosecutor’s Office commenced criminal proceedings in order to find Sulev’s source. The investigation was executed by the leading Public Prosecutor Alar Kirs personally.
Among those interrogated was Taavi Aas, the Deputy Mayor of the City of Tallinn. At least one witness told the interrogator about their contact with Sulev and me. We were not summoned for interrogation.
Clever people work at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. They probably guessed that we would hardly disclose our sources.
The police searched for a waiter who spat on a cutlet
The Penal Code allows punishing a witness who refuses to give testimony with a fine or with up to one year in jail. Why did nothing happen to Sulev or me?
The reason is the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects everybody’s right to freedom of expression and has been signed by Estonia. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg strictly monitors the enforcement of the Convention.
The judges of Strasbourg do not prohibit nation states from searching for those who leak information, however, they allow for the pressuring of journalists in exceptional cases only.
After 2004, the press hasn’t been requested to disclose their sources in Estonia either. It was then that the Tallinn police brought charges against Eesti Päevaleht reporter Sergo Selder in order to find out the name of the waiter who spat on a cutlet.
During the interrogation, Selder had to endure the policeman’s threats, and was also photographed against the mug-shot background like a prisoner. The investigation was concluded when the Prosecutor’s Office stepped in.
Ever since, journalists and the Republic of Estonia have endured a marriage of reason, characteristic to bored couples. The authorities despised the information leaks, but didn’t break source protection by force. The grudge accumulated, however.
Last summer, Minister of Justice Rein Lang formed a “working group on media freedom legislation”, which went unnoticed by the public. The Ministry remained silent as to the group’s duties.
Only a few weeks ago, the representative of the Ministry of Justice proclaimed at a seminar of the Estonian Newspaper Association that following the European example, Estonian journalists would also have their right to source protection!
Rein Lang actually wishes the opposite. The draft legislation, signed by the Minister, lists over 50 exceptions which oblige journalists to disclose their source to the police, the Prosecutor’s Office and the court. Upon failure to do so, one can be punished with a fine that equals up to 500 daily salaries. Or even face a year in jail, which today seems quite unbelievable. But, if this punishment is not intended to be used, why include it in the law?
In the list, I immediately recognised the section of the Penal Code pursuant to which they searched for the information regarding Tauk and Parbus reaching the editorial board of Ekspress. If Lang’s draft legislation had been adopted last year, the silence by Sulev and me could have entailed our prosecution and conviction.
At worst, we could have been in jail for up to one year regarding the Tauk case. After release, Sulev would have been put right back to jail like an old criminal – this time for the Parbus case. Of course, we could have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and demanded hefty compensation from the Republic of Estonia in the case of victory.
GoBus secrets awaiting leaker
Lang characterises the impact of his draft legislation as “extensive”. He is right. Should the Act be adopted in the given form in the Riigikogu, investigating the mischief of public authorities and public officials would become very complicated for journalists. It is easier to write about topics which do not entail the looming breach of source protection for the journalist.
Let us take, for example, the section prohibiting disclosure of information on closed court trials. The court is presently trying the former county governor of Valga County, Georg Trashanov, and GoBus. The indictment implies that the bus businessmen gave the county governor a bribe of over EEK 100 000 in order to get favourable line contracts from the state.
GoBus is no random company; they have connections with the political elite. Although the administration of justice in usually public in Estonia, the court is deliberating a large part of the GoBus trial behind closed doors. The official reason is the protection of the business secrets of the bus company, which seems far-fetched.
It would be nice if there were someone from the inner circle bold enough to spill the GoBus secrets to Ekspress. The people have a right to know the truth about such significant matters. If necessary, Sulev and I will endure another interrogation in the basement of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the name of source protection.
Hiding a source would be equal to remaining silent about a murder
According to the draft legislation of the Estonian Ministry of Justice, a journalist would be put in jail for up to a year if protecting their source in the investigation of more than 50 types of crimes.
- Crimes with at least an 8-year imprisonment
Genocide. Piracy. Hijacking of aircraft. Murder. Large-scale drug trafficking. Theft by participation of criminal organisation. Robbery. Treason. Espionage. Terrorism. Repeated accepting and giving of bribes. Revenue stamp counterfeiting. Money laundering. And much more.
- Leaking-related crimes
Violation of confidentiality of messages. Violation of the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of secrets which have become known during the course of professional activities. Unlawful disclosure of sensitive personal data. Disclosure of state secrets and classified foreign information. Disclosure of state secrets and classified foreign information out of negligence. Transmission of internal information. Unlawful disclosure of data regarding pre-trial procedure of a criminal matter and data regarding surveillance proceeding. Violation of obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrets.
Source: Ministry of Justice