The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in testimony at the trial of three Danish journalists who face the threat of jail over articles exposing doubts over government claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq said it was “astonishing” that the case had come to court.
“These reports were professional, legitimate pieces of quality journalism on a matter of the highest public interest,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “It is astonishing that the journalists have been charged and brought to court.”
He was speaking at the trial of Niels Lunde, Editor of Berlingske Tidende newspaper, and reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen, who are accused of publishing confidential government documents, which is punishable by fines or up to two years in prison.
“There was nothing in these reports to endanger Danish soldiers or Danish national security,” said White. “It is entirely legitimate to scrutinise the government's arguments and its decisions. The only thing that has been damaged here is the credibility of the government, but it is not the responsibility of journalists and media to promote or defend the image of government."
In February and March 2004, Bjerre and Larsen wrote a series of articles based on leaked reports from the Danish Defense Intelligence Service. The reports said there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction during Saddam Hussein's rule - one of the main reasons cited for the invasion led by the United States in 2003. In its justification of going to war a year earlier, the Danish government said it knew that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
White told the court that he had complained about the Danish prosecution and two other breaches of journalists’ rights by security forces in Germany and the Netherlands in a letter to European Union Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini, calling on him to tell European Union governments to properly defend press freedom in their balancing of actions in defence of national security.
However, he admitted to the court, the response from the European Union had been regrettable – they had said these were issues that could only be dealt with at national level.
White said that whether or not to go to war was the most important decision any government could ever make. It was vital that the reasons for going to war were subject to scrutiny and the people’s right to know was respected.
“These journalists acted professionally and correctly,” he said. The case was being closely watched by thousands of journalists in Europe and it had significance far beyond the borders of Denmark.
“This case is about balancing the rights of a free press against the use of laws on national security,” he said. “It is important for press freedom and democracy.”
For more information contact the IFJ at +32 2 235 2207
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries worldwide