IFJ: newsroom phone taps are a 'catastrophe for press freedom'

This week's allegations that intelligence agencies in the United States and Germany obtained journalists' telephone records and even tapped journalists'

phones in the course of leak investigations confirm a growing threat to press freedom in democratic countries, the International Federation of Journalists has warned.

In a statement, IFJ general secretary Aidan White said: "The news from the United States and Germany only confirms what we fear about the threat to fundamental rights. What we are witnessing is a catastrophe for press freedom and for civil liberties.

"The reality of modern journalism is of illegal surveillance, direct interference by intelligence services in the work of media, and of unprecedented governmental pressure on independent journalism. In the process, democracy is put at risk."

In the United States, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito of ABC News reported on their blog, The Blotter, that a US intelligence source had warned them that the FBI had obtained their telephone records — along with those of reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times — in the course of investigations into leaks at the CIA.

The records were apparently obtained without a judicial warrant, using a provision of American antiterrorist legislation known as the Patriot Act. The New York Sun reported on Tuesday that Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief at the CIA, had had the story confirmed to him by contacts in the FBI.

In Germany, a leaked parliamentary report into the country's Federal Intelligence Service, BND, revealed that the agency had been spying on journalists who were investigating its activities.

In one case, the leaked report said a journalist had been informed on by two fellow journalists, at least one of whom was in the pay of the agency.

On Tuesday, the Berliner Zeitung, citing sources inside the BND, reported that the agency had tapped journalists' phones to uncover their sources for reports about the agency. The agency denies this report.

The magazine Stern said a listening device had been found in the home of a reporter.

A freelance also came forward to admit that he had been a BND informant while working at the news magazine Focus.

In response to the growing scandal, the German government on Tuesday banned the BND from using journalists as informants and declared its intention to officially publish the classified parliamentary report.

"We welcome the news that this sort of spying is to end in Germany, but we note that the agency will still use journalists as contacts in foreign operations,"

said White in the IFJ statement.

"While the latest information about the tracking of journalistic sources in the United States clearly shows that, across the democratic world, there is an unprecedented degree of interference in media. We can assume that this is probably only the tip of the iceberg of pressure on journalism."

The IFJ's major concern is that the ability of journalists to protect their sources is being compromised as a result of the war on terror.

"Governments everywhere are trying to enforce new standards of secrecy that are a violation of press freedom and the people's right to know," said White.

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