European Journalists See Attack on Protection of Sources in UK After Police Monitor Reporter’s Phone Calls

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) today condemned police in the United Kingdom for secretly obtaining a journalist’s phone records in a bid to uncover his sources in a story he was researching on a police investigation.

This case comes just a after the EFJ called for European-wide action to strengthen the rights of journalists.

Police in Suffolk, England, had possession of reporter Mark Bulstrode’s private mobile phone records, said EFJ affiliate the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Bulstrode, a veteran reporter for British newspaper East Anglian Daily Times, first approached the force with information about the reopening of an historic investigation that was not public knowledge. In the end, the newspaper decided not to publish a story on the inquiry because of its sensitive nature.

According to the NUJ, after his discussions with the police, Bulstrode became suspicious about the police activity but only discovered that law enforcement officials had in fact obtained his phone records after applications were made under the Data Protection Act to find out what the police were doing. Police at first denied the monitoring but seven months later they revealed their tactics in the case.

The EFJ and its global parent organization, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), are supporting the NUJ in its condemnation of these tactics and they reiterated their call for European-wide laws to protect journalists and their confidential sources.

“This action by the British police is yet another attack on protection of sources and press rights,” said Aidan White, EFJ/IFJ General Secretary. “We have seen an alarming trend in recent months, where governments try to intimidate journalists and their sources for stories that they do not want to see published.”

The IFJ hailed the recent acquittal of three journalists in a controversial Danish case over press rights that put them on trial for "publishing information illegally obtained by a third party" under Article 152-d of the Criminal Code. The charges were brought after the two reporters and their editor for a story that exposed the Government’s lack of credible evidence for its decision to back the invasion of Iraq.

The IFJ said the decision by the court that lifted the threat of jail hanging over Editor Niels Lunde and reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen of Berlingske Tidende newspaper should signal a European-wide fight-back against governmental and official pressure on journalists in a number of European Union countries in the past year. 

A week before, The Hague ordered the release of two newspaper journalists who were jailed for two days for refusing to reveal sources in a case on government leaks to criminals.

Earlier this year, the Dutch government said it would stop its surveillance of journalist communications and the German government said it would remove spies that it had placed in newsrooms to stop leaks to the press. In the UK, the government has said it is planning to strengthen official secrecy laws to prevent whistleblowers from revealing information about government policy. Latvia, Ireland and Italy have also seen action, both legal and illegal, by officials trying to discover who journalists are talking to.

“We are calling for European countries to agree to a common position that puts an end to legal uncertainty and dispels the intimidating atmosphere surrounding reporters when they carry out investigative work,” White said.

See also NUJ Press Release: Police Probe to find NUJ source attacked

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