EFJ Tells European Commission To Keep “Hands Off” Reporter’s Files After Court Decision

The European Federation of Journalists today said the European Commission should keep its hands off the files and notebooks of an investigative journalist after he failed in European Court challenge over its right of access to the material, which was seized in police raids in Belgium a year ago.

The European Court of Justice in a judgement this week says the Commission has the right to look at the material (including address books, copies of hard disks and e-mail records) belonging to Hans Martin Tillack, a reporter for the German magazine Stern, which Belgian Police seized in raids on his home and office on 19 March 2004.

“But that is no excuse for the Commission to go fishing through these files,” said Aidan White, EFJ General Secretary. “This case illustrates just how inadequate is protection for journalists. The Commission makes unsubstantiated allegations against a reporter and then gets access to his confidential files which potentially compromise anyone who has talked to him. It is a shocking denial of justice to journalists and their sources.”

Belgian police still hold the material and are investigating allegations against Tillack by the Commission’s anti-fraud office Olaf. In particular, Olaf claimed he bribed officials for information, but he strongly denies the allegation. Tillack sparked controversy in 2002 by publishing a series of exposés on fraud in the Commission and its statistical arm, Eurostat, based on internal documents.

“These allegations already smack of intimidation of a reporter by bullying authority,” said White. “But it is unconscionable that the law allows the Commission to get its hands on his confidential files when no charges have been laid and no allegations have been proved. The police investigation, which we are sure will clear Tillack of all accusations against him, should be dropped and the Commission should not take advantage of the circumstances to go fishing for names of his contacts.”

The EFJ lodged a formal statement to the Court through its legal representatives Andreas Bartosch and Thomas M. Grupp from the law firm Haver & Mailänder (Brussels/Stuttgart) supporting Tillack’s appeal to annul the decision of Olaf to forward complaints in February last year to the German and Belgian judicial authorities.

However, the Court ruled against Tillack saying that Olaf complaints against him were not "determining" acts which would have led to the raid and seizures, putting the responsibility for the raids firmly in the hands of the Belgian authorities. The Court did not deal with arguments from Tillack and that Olaf had broken European law and its own rules in its handling of the case. Now Tillack plans to take Belgium to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for the return of his documents.

The EFJ says recent changes to Belgian law which enhance protection for journalists’ sources of information would avoid a similar case to Tillack’s in future. “But that is of little comfort to Hans Martin Tillack, whose professional life remains under a cloud of uncertainty,” said White. “It is time for the Commission and the Belgian authorities to clear him and to bring down the curtain on this long-running and unsavoury affair.”

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The EFJ represents over 260,000 journalists in more than 30 countries