The International Federation of Journalists said today it is alarmed by mounting attacks on media and whistleblowers by Western governments trying to hide potentially illegal or damaging actions and statements.
“It is unacceptable to see countries like the United States, Great Britain, and Denmark trying to intimidate and stifle independent journalism,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, “while others, like Germany and the Netherlands, are caught out snooping on media and tapping the telephones of journalists.”
The IFJ says that a global crackdown on investigative journalism led by countries that are supposed to be models of democracy is repressive and is depriving people of their basic rights – “most importantly the right of citizens to know what their government is doing.”
There have been numerous attacks on media in the US and Europe in recent months, with governments often defending their actions in the name of protecting public safety or “fighting the war on terrorism.”
The latest case involves the New York Times which has faced a barrage of heavy criticism from President George Bush and other Republican officials and pundits for its detailed expose of US security services monitoring hundreds of thousands of international bank transactions. Some Republican lawmakers say criminal charges should be brought against the reporters who broke the story.
In the UK, it was revealed at the weekend that the government is planning a new crackdown to strengthen official secrecy laws to prevent whistleblowers from revealing information about government policy. Officials with access to sensitive information will no longer be able to claim they act in the public interest by exposing wrongdoing or unlawful acts by the government.
The government has been embarrassed by a spate of leaks revealing concerns about the legality of the US-led invasion of Iraq, including concerns allegedly expressed by Tony Blair about American tactics and revelations to media of a classified memo containing comments President Bush made about bombing broadcaster al-Jazeera. The government has prohibited other media from reporting on the memo.
And in Denmark Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen of the daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende, a Danish daily, face two years in prison at their trial later this year in an unprecedented trial because they reported in 2004 that before joining the Iraq invasion, the Danish government was told by military intelligence there was no firm evidence of banned weapons in Iraq. They are charged with "publishing information illegally obtained by a third party" under the Criminal Code.
The Danish whistleblower, a former intelligence officer, was convicted and jailed for four months last year.
These actions, coupled with the news that journalists in the Netherlands have had had their communications tapped by security services and that in Germany spies were planted in media to stop leaks to the press, are raising concerns that there is a concerted effort across the Western world to try to stifle voices of dissent within government and to prevent journalists from exposing wrongdoing.
“When governments bully their journalists, censor the media and persecute whistleblowers, they seriously damage the watchdog role of journalism,” said White. “In turbulent times we need more informed, professional and accurate reporting about the work of government, not gags and intimidation.”
The IFJ believes that the credibility of western governments as torch-bearers for democracy and press freedom is being seriously undermined by these latest actions.
“The United States and Europe need to lead by example,” said White. “The enemies of press freedom and open government are the only winners when journalists are put under pressure in this way.”
For further information contact the IFJ: +32 2 235 2200
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries.