Archive for category EU

Chancellor’s letter in the open after 11 years

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.

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Danish MEPs fight for non-MEP Ombudsman

Danish journalists’ magazine Journalisten.dk has an interesting take on the debate about a new EU Ombudsman. Written by journalist Andreas Marckmann. Read the English language summary below.

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.

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“Can privatization kill?”

“Can privatization kill” asked Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen in an op-ed in the New York Times last year. Gammeltoft-Hansen is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies DIIS and tomorrow will present a book about the migration industry and the commercialisation of international migration. 

A provocative question – particularly in times, where privatization is all over us from caretaking over education and even to security. Yet, aren’t provocative questions exactly what journalists and indeed academics should ask?

On today’s front page of the Euobserver is Luludja, a Bulgarian Roma woman migrated to France where she sells roses and her body to pay the debt to her traffickers. The story is documented by a team of journalists who did crossborder research from Germany, France and Bulgaria. They asked the obvious question about the illegal migration business, documenting heartbreakingly how Luludja’s hope to achieve a better situation for herself and her family was abused. The team observed the troubling problem of Roma migration in Europe and decided to not just observe but ask. They wanted to document. They fulfill their task in the chain of asking the right questions in a democratic system.

Gammeltoft-Hansen and his co-author Ninna Nyberg Sørensen – senior academics in the fields of law and sociology/anthropology – take the question one step further. They look into the systemic problems of migration business. Not only clandestine and illegal activity but the obvious too. Visible on state budgets and carried out in the name of democratic governments. “Migration has become big business, and international migration has become increasingly commercialized,” they write about their observations in the invitation to a seminar tomorrow. “Over the last few decades, a host of new commercial opportunities have emerged that capitalize both on the migrants’ desires to migrate and the struggle by governments to manage migration. From the rapid growth of specialized transportation and labour contracting companies, to multinational businesses managing detention centres or establishing border security, to the organized criminal networks profiting from human smuggling and trafficking.”

So now – what should be the next move? This is the provocative question into the so called European Public Sphere. How should Europe react to its serious problems? Some of the necessary questions have been asked and documented. Academic analysis allows to see a larger pattern. On the democratic to-do-list now are public debate and political action. 

 

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Citizens deserve better

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!

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Police investigates Dutch journalist for showing weakness in payment system

As more and more EU member states introduce electronic payment systems for public transport, Dutch police investigates a journalist on suspicions of fraud after showing weakness in the security of the Dutch system.

Read article by guest blogger Staffan Dahllöf:

A Dutch journalist, Brenno de Winter, showed on TV how easy it is to cheat a new electronic payment system for public transport. The prosecutor took up the case – in order to decide whether the journalist should be prosecuted for fraud.

Mary Hallebeek, press officer at the prosecutor’s office in Utrecht describes the case as delicate:

”The journalist did this to show that the system doesn’t function well, and he had been telling this in different publications before. We are aware of that he had a journalistic purpose, and the purpose of an act should be considered according to Dutch law,” she told Wobbing.eu.

Ms Hallebeek says that the investigation was triggered by a notification to the prosecutors office by Trans Link Systems, the company designing the payment system, but adds that the prosecutor also was aware of the alleged fraud through the media.

Brenno de Winter says he didn’t see another way of proving claims of the weaknesses of the system, mainly as the company behind the system had refused to answer direct questions.

Several other journalists joined him in his research, and published their results. However police has questioned none of them and the public prosecutor’s office has indicated that no other reporters are in the scope of a possible prosecution.

“I’m a freelance journalist whereas the other journalists have regular employments. So to be singled out hits me harder than it would hit the national news,” Brenno de Winter says.

The core of the case is a digital payment system for public transportation, a project mainly funded with public money, and with a price tag with a large number on it.

Brenno de Winter argues that the used technology is highly insecure and that several scientific studies have warned for the risks for using this card as a payment system.

But a decision to carry on was made on the promise that fraud easily would be detected, and fraudulent cards would be blocked after a maximum of 24 hours.

Early this year Brenno de Winter showed that people with a basic computer knowledge is capable of defrauding the system, using standard tools available on the Internet.

He also showed that this could be done without the system detecting the attempts, and that cards generally aren’t blocked.

And he proved that using a card that has been blocked is still possible without being discovered by the system.

“The central systems turned out to fail in all thinkable ways,” Brenno de Winter claims.

The seemingly vulnerable payment system had caught big attention in the Dutch media  and the revelations have been debated in the Parliament.

At the prosecutors office Mary Hallenbeek says that a decision to prosecute or not, and if so, on what grounds, most likely will be taken within a week or two.

The article has previously been published on Wobbing.eu

Update September 9th: Investigation closed and case dropped. Read more on Wobbing.eu

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Transparency is a common task

Politicians have said it. The European Ombudsman has said it. Now even the European Court is getting close to saying it: Freedom of information is a fundamental right in a democracy.
My point today is, that rights wither away, if we do not use them. So we need tools to help us do so. I’ll be back to that later.

The Court did not go quite as far as saying, that access to information held by public authorities is a fundamental right. However it did say that he European people shall have the widest possible right of access to information. The latter was said in a court case decided yesterday, just read from point 55 of the court decision and onwards. The Spanish NGO Access Info had asked which EU countries are in favour and which are against the new draft EU regulation on access to documents. It thus challenged the Council tradition of not disclosing member states arguments in negotiations. A recent report shows that only five countries released documents on the positions. But how, then, can there be any political debate?

The Access Info court case is one of numerous where NGOs, politicians, companies and individuals fight for the right of freedom of information.

The EU as well as most of its member states have laws regulating this particular to the public. Those countries, who still do not have a law, do at least have the EUs access to environmental documents directive.

However once a law is in force, it has to be used. Particularly, maybe, in Europe. We have the very open traditions giving large access to information to the public in the Nordic countries. Not only is it a public law to provide information to the citizens, it is an explicit aim by the ministerial administrations. Also the United Kingdom, Estonia, Slovenia, the Netherlands and others have strong and efficient laws.

Now when it comes to efficiency, it’s not easy to divide in good and bad. We have to look at habit. If citizens, NGOs, journalists, lawyers, companies do use their right to freedom of information, a practice will evolve to obey by the law. Court cases (as the one of yesterday) or decisions by ombudsmen and information commissioners strengthen the respect for the public’s interest to know. And numerous requests give officials the habit of sharing public information with the public – which, too, is a question of habit and respect.

Citizens and more importantly even journalists have the task to use the law intelligently and persistently. We have to consider our requests carefully and target them clearly – in respect for the workload that a decent and thorough answer (which we have a right to and expect) may bring to often understaffed departments in the administration. We have to be polite, clear and efficient in our contact with officials. Using our right is not an act of aggression – as it is considered in many countries without a tradition for openness. Filing a request for information is nothing but using an administrative option inhabitant in any vital democracy which citizens can expect to be administrated as any other administrative task within a certain time frame and in a constructive spirit.

In order to help journalists and others to use our right to access to information, we have updated and improved an obvious tool for using our right. Do have a look at the new wobbing-site. Wob is Dutch journalists’ slang for freedom of information laws, and it can be changed easily into a verb: Have you been wobbing today?

If not, go to www.wobbing.eu and have a look. If you want to know how to use the website as a too, have a look at the various options, it provides.

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Cross-border story quoted widely

Two journalists, one story – but how to achieve impact? In the story about the Latvian Brides, cooperation of journalists from two countries led to research so thorough, that the story was quoted in various European countries.

Aleksandra Jolkina from Latvia and Jamie Smyth from Ireland have been researching the story of sham marriages in each their end of the EU. Latvian women were lured into marriages with non-EU males, in order to get them residence permits – possible under Irish and EU legislation. Some of the women experienced appalling abuse.

Last year they decided to cooperate. With the help of a research grant from Journalismfund.eu they could cover the necessary travelling and other costs, to do the research.

“Working together enabled both of us to identify contacts in each other countries that would have been difficult or impossible to source while working on our own,” Jamie Smyth said about the cooperation, when he published the common research for an Irish target group in the Irish Times, where he is a staff writer.

The first publication was done for an Irish target group in the Irish Times in October, the second publication was done in book format for a Latvian target group recently.

Publication in Ireland:
Irish Times: Irelands sham marriage scam, Trapped in a sham marriage, Couple go to High Court with sham marriage decision, Comment: Ireland must take action to stop sham marriages

Publication in Latvia:
Book: Misis Eiropa, Pismieta Misis Eiropa (e-book), Misis Eiropa (order)

Book launch and book reviews in Latvia:
Latvian News Agency LETA,Newspaper Latvijas Avize, TV5 (in Russian), Newspaper Diena

Quotations of the story in other countries

Austria: ORF 

Poland: Rzeczpospolita

United Kingdom: BBC – Uncovering the Baltic Brides Sham, BBC – Latvia calls on Ireland to tackle sham marriagesJournalism.co.uk

Germany: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Badische Zeitung, Eurasisches Magazin, Berliner Zeitung

Europe: EUobserver.com

Canada: CBC Radio

USA: Center for Investigative Reporting  

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€ 1.5 million postponed

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 »

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EU-money to the mafia, the tobacco industry and multinationals?

Journalists have dug out the beneficiaries of EU-farmsubsidies for citizens to see them at Farmsubsidy.org.

Now a new team of journalists has dug out the recipients of the other large lump on the EU-budget: The regional funding. In a unique cooperation and 8 months research the new London Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Financial Times have cooperated and followed the money – resulting in important stories.
The team behind has made accessible the underlying database for everyone to search.

Today the Watchdog Blog is happy to present a guest comment by Annamarie Cumiskey, senior journalist at the London Bureau and highly experienced in European affairs.

By Annamarie Cumiskey

It’s a myth that the Italian mafia puts a horses head in your bed if it doesn’t like you. They put a dead dogs’ head in front of your door instead.

And, I know this because while working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, www.tbij.com in London, in collaboration with the Financial Times, I had chance to meet Colonnello Pierone, the man whose job it is to put mafia bosses behind bars in Southern Italy.

We met to talk about EU structural funds, as part of an eight month long investigation that is being rolled out this week, when the dead dogs’ head came up.

The dead dog was found in our new online database, not literally, but through one of the many ways the Italian mafia has found to get its dirty hands on European taxpayers money.

We brought together all the lists of beneficiaries of the ERDF and ESF under the current €347bn spending round – over 650,000 projects.
One project, the modernisation of the Salerno – Reggio Calabria highway in Southern Italy, has been allocated €400,000, and since then the local mafia have been putting dead dog heads in front of construction workers doors to frighten them into paying extortion money.

Some of the gang members are more sophisticated white-collar criminals, and they really have collared EU grant aid – €1.2bn in recent years according to a report by the Italian financial police.

Don’t worry they can always seek repentence for their sins at the EU grant aided Church of Madonna di Polsi nearby that also happens to be their spiritual home.

The Italian mafia makes it look so easy, and that’s the problem it is.
The Italian mafia, fortunately, is an extreme case of how EU funds are abused, but it shows how impotent the EU institutions are to stop this.  And, this will stay the same due to the inherent nature of the EU – 80% of its budget is spent at national level, and the EU can’t control what happens there.

Al Jazeera, BBC Radio 4 File-on-Four, BBC World Service and France 2 will also broadcast programmes based on our research.

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Uncut: Revolution Televised

In Moldova, an immediate neighbour of the EU, last year three young people died in protests against election fraud.

The election had to be repeated, but the violence remains a national memory. Now a journalistic project asks the Moldovan public to help analyse, what really happened. 16 hours of protests captured in 300 clips recorded by 13 different surveillance cameras, documenting the entire so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova.

The project got technical support developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works with a journalist research grant from Danish-Eastern-European Scoop.

The Watchdog Blog has been in touch with Stefan Candea from the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. The journalist team behind the story asks those, who may have knowledge about the events, to help analyse the files. This is a task too big for individual journalists to analyse. Below I would like to quote from the website, where the surveillance clips are available. If you want to read more, you can go to the refering website of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Text from the website:
In April 2009, about 15,000 people went to the streets of Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. The protests started with a flashmob on April the 6th, and grew bigger the next day on April the 7th. International media called it the “Twitter Revolution” and communist rulers called it a “Romanian provocation”. The demonstrators themselves claimed that elections were rigged and demanded the resignation of the communist government or the recount of votes. Events soon escalated out of control.

President Vladimir Voronin and the communist regime reacted violently to the protests, suspending the constitution starting with that night. The results: at least three dead youth, almost one thousand young people illegally arrested and tortured, over one thousand days of arrests issued, a president and prime-minister threatening to shoot the protesters and ordering the sequestration of students in schools.

The government tried to control any information related to the riots, so while one journalist was placed under house arrest, eight other journalists were picked up from the street and kept captive for hours or days, tens of reporters were beaten, harassed, threatened, almost 30 foreign journalists expelled or denied access into the Republic of Moldova. Internet connections were blocked, phone conversations jammed.

More than a year and a half after, nobody knows the names of people responsible for the abuses committed during those days. Nobody knows how many of the crowd were protesters or how many were actually working for the Moldovan Government. The repetition of the elections brought the communist regime to an end. Nevertheless, only one police officer and three judges were brought to justice. Less then 50 victims sued the government. Many of the other hundreds of victims felt intimidated by police not to press charges, or don’t have evidence.

You can change that!

Here are the uncut 16 hours of a revolution. This is the CCTV footage from 7th of April and the night that followed, recorded by government surveillance cameras located on the buildings of the Government, the Parliament and the Presidency in downtown Chisinau. These are the relevant hours captured in 300 clips recorded by 13 surveillance cameras starting on April the 7 at 10 am and ending at 2 am next morning. Moldovan authorities never released these videos.

We ask Moldovans to identify people and situations that were not reported in the media and to post a detailed comment under the video you are screening. Agents provocateurs? Violent protesters? Please log in to leave your observations, especially ones that might allow victims to hold perpetuators accountable. International lobby groups, organizations, artists or whoever is interested in the raw material, download all the videos in complete, uncompressed form.

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