European Court ruling strengthens press freedom for journalists

In a landmark judgment, the European Court of Human Rights overturned a ruling today that forced Dutch journalists to reveal their sources. The ruling will provide significant protection for journalists. Index on Censorship was amongst the media organisations that intervened in the case.

Mark Stephens, media lawyer from Finers Stephens Innocent LLP and a trustee of Index, 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.”

In January 2002, police had ordered journalists working for Sanoma Uitgevers, a Dutch magazine publishing company, to hand over photographs of illegal car races. Its publication Autoweek had promised anonymity to participants in the races as a condition for covering the story. Police believed that one of the cars had been used to make a getaway in a burglary.

The ruling today has received positive feedback from experts, who believe it is a step towards significant and clearer protection for journalists across Europe.

“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,” said Geoffrey Robertson QC, counsel for the coalition of intervening organisations including Index on Censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19 and the Guardian.

Peter Noorlander, legal director at Media Legal Defence Initiative, which also intervened in the case, said: “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,” he said.