Archive for category Freedom of the press

While the ball is rolling Italy works on gagging-law

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.
Brigitte Alfter

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

Hard debate quoted in Corriere della Sera

News and protest by the International Press Institute

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.

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Blank front pages

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 20th March 2010: See also article in Baltic Business News and on Euronews.

Update 21st of March 2010: See also article in German TAZ.

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Estonian journalists fear for their sources

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.

UPDATE 18/2/2010: Expert in European freedom of expression visits Estonia.

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.

Sidebar

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

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Reporting forbidden?

“Media and politics – the tension between freedom of the press and personal rights in print media and the internet”. Monday November 9th, 18.30, Residence Palace, Brussels – se invitation at the bottom of this blog entry.

Can only Norwegian media report about the British parliament? For one absurd day exactly that appears to have been the case last month, when the Guardian was gagged to report about a certain company by a court injunction. Norwegians colleagues were threatened with legal steps but published in Norway and online about the story.  A unique cross-border coopearation of colleagues from the Guardian, BBC, Volkskrant and NRK.

Earlier this year in Brussels a German liberal member of the European Parliament, who wanted to be re-elected, systematically approached media with threats to withhold one certain information: Her attendance figures in the previous period. What caused the politician to act, as she did, is not known. But her lawyer did get a temporary injunction against the important German daily FAZ, she tried to stop parts of an interview in German public service tv ARD, she tried to stop Brussels journalist and blogger Hajo Friedrich and she tried to stop German journalist and blogger David Schraven of Ruhrbarone. Her various actions were reported by German media magazine Zapp.

In Italy sueing journalists appears to be near normal. According to Italian MEP Mario Mauro from the first of January 1994 till 2009 6.745 penal and civil cases have been announced against press and tv. The average is 449 yearly, more than one a day.

Slovenia has accused Finnish journalist Magnus Berglund, who researched and aired a story about alleged corruption in an arms deal between Finnish company Patria and Slovenia. Finnish police is currently investigating the case.

Going furhter south from Slovenia to EU applicant countries in the Balkans, the situation gets even worse. Croatian journalist Hrvoje Appelt – currently under police protection  – has started to gather information about assaults against journalists in his own country and the neighbouring countries. Do run his overview over assaults against journalists through Google translate – it is saddening reading.

When Reporters Sans Frontieres recently published its annual index of press freedom, the conclusion read “Europe continues to recede”.

“Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?” Thus reads the text of the press freedom watchers.

Coming Monday one step is taken to address at least one of the aspects. Journalists have invited politicians and lawyers to talk about the issue with each other in Brussels.

„Media and politics – the tension between freedom of the press and personal rights in print media and the internet“

Experts on the panel and in the audience discuss in German and English (simultaneous translation provided)

in the Residence Palace, Brussels, Rue de la Loi 155, Room Polak

on Monday 9 November 2009,

18.30 Welcome drinks

19.00 – 20.30 Panel discussion

On the Panel:

Philippe Leruth (Vice-President of the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ), Klaus-Heiner Lehne (MEP (PPE) and Chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee in the European Parliament), David Schraven (Freelance Jounalist and Blogger of the German website „Ruhrbarone“), Martin Huff (Journalist and Lawyer, Director of the Local Bar of Cologne), Eberhard Kempf (Lawyer, German Bar Association) and Gregor Kreuzhuber (Partner, GPlus-Communications Consultancy; Brussels)

Chair:

Hajo Friedrich (freelance journalist).

Manifold are the tensions between media and the people in the focus of media coverage. More and more often political reporting in print media and the internet is subject to – often costly – litigation in court. According to the Italian MEP Mario Mauro politicians in Italy have brought 6745 civil and criminal proceedings against media coverage since 1994. Also German MEPs have in the past filed law suits against the press.

In most cases there is a conflict between freedom of the press and personal rights, between journalists who investigate and politicians who feel pilloried. A new development seems to be that top politicians and other prominent figures take legal action against media reports even beyond national borders as with the World Wide Web print media have increased their sphere of influence enormously. In this regard the „internal market“ of the World Wide Web already has difficulties to respond to the question which national law and which court of jurisdiction are applicable.

Beyond identifying the essential issues in view of the above-mentioned tensions the panellists – together with the audience – will seek to find morals, answers and compromise solutions. For the first time the panel discussion will bring together representatives of almost all involved parties in Brussels: journalists and their lobbyists, lawyers, politicians, media and public affairs consultants.

The discussion will be in English and German (simultaneous translation German/English and vice versa will be available). Drinks & Snacks will be provided.

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