Euro judgment strengthens hand of press versus police

A judgment from the European Court of Human Rights today strengthened the rights of UK journalists to protect their sources from the police.

The court overturned a ruling against Dutch publisher Sanoma which had forced its journalists to hand over photographs to the police. It said that to do so would compromise their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The journalists in question, who worked for the car magazine Autoweek, attended an illegal car race in January 2002 where they took photos. The magazine had intended to publish the photos with details obscured which could identify the vehicles.

Dutch police had issued a summons forcing them to hand over a CD-rom of photographs in a bid to idenfity those involved in the race.

The police also suspected that one of the vehicles participating in the street race had been used as a getaway car following a ram raid

Geoffrey Robertson QC, counsel for a coalition of intervening media said: ‘This ruling was an acid test for the Court and for media freedom across Europe. It sets a high benchmark for protection of journalistic materials and will force police and prosecutors across Europe, from Russia to France, to change their practices.”

Mark Stephens of Finers Stephens Innocent LLP, who also acted on behalf of the media, said: “In this respect, if no other, Europe has a firmer protection for free speech than the US and so today’s decision is very much to be celebrated.

‘The judgment firmly demonstrates that European governments cannot use clumsy police work to make journalists the surrogates for law enforcement.”

Peter Noorlander, legal director at the Media Legal Defence Initiative, said, “In this judgment, the European Court lays down a clear marker for the protection of journalistic materials. Law enforcement can no longer ask media to relinquish journalistic material unless as a matter of last resort in the investigation of a serious crime, and after having sought judicial authorisation.

“This will force a change in law and practice across Europe, not only in countries like Russia and Romania but also in France and the Netherlands where new legislation is now required.”

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Guardian News and Media Limited, and the Open Society Justice Initiative intervened jointly in the lawsuit, with support from the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Index on Censorship, the European Newspaper Publishers Association, Condé Nast Publications, Hearst Corporation, the National Geographic Society, the New York Times Company, La Repubblica, Reuters, Time Inc., the Washington Post Company, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

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