November 27, 2007
Source protection boost from ECHR
Raid on journalist's home to identify source was a breach of Article 10
A journalist with the German weekly magazine Stern has won an important victory in the European Court of Human Rights in relation to protection of sources.
In February and March 2002, the journalist, Hans Tillack, published two articles in Stern based on information from confidential documents from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). The first article reported the allegations of a European civil servant concerning irregularities in the European institutions, while the second concerned the internal investigations OLAF carried out into those allegations.
Suspecting the applicant of having bribed a civil servant by paying him EUR 8,000 in exchange for confidential information concerning investigations in progress in the European institutions, OLAF opened an investigation to identify the informant. In February 2004, after the investigation failed to unmask the official at the origin of the leaks, OLAF lodged a complaint against Mr Tillack with the Belgian judicial authorities, which opened an investigation against a person or persons unknown for breach of professional confidence and bribery involving a civil servant.
On 19 March 2004 the applicant’s home and workplace were searched; almost all the applicant’s working papers and tools were seized (16 crates of papers, two boxes of files, two computers, four mobile phones and a metal cabinet). The applicant requested that his belongings be returned, but his request was turned down.
The ECHR today ruled that the actions of seizing the journalist’s materials in order to identify the source of the article was a breach of Article 10.
Although the power of search and seizure was prescribed by law and pursued a legitimate aim it was not necessary in a democratic society. The Court emphasised that a journalist’s right not to reveal her or his sources could not be considered a mere privilege to be granted or taken away depending on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the conduct of their sources, but was part and parcel of the right to information and had to be treated with the utmost caution. This was particularly so in Mr Tillack’s case case where the suspicion of criminality used to justify the search was based on vague, uncorroborated rumours.
The judgment of the ECHR is presently only available in French (click the icon below). As soon as it is available in English a full case report will be made available with the English judgment on 5RB.com.
The decision is the second in a week from the ECHR affirming the importance to Article 10 of protection of sources. A breach of Article 10 was also found in Voskuil v Netherlands.