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ECHR upholds right to protect sources

IPI welcomes ruling, calls on other courts to acknowledge principle

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 16 December 2009 - In a landmark ruling on 15 December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed the rights of news organisations to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

With this ruling, five news organisations - the Guardian, The Independent, the Times, the Financial Times and Reuters - won a case against the Belgian-based brewers Interbrew. The news organisations brought the case before the ECHR in response to a 2001 judgment by a UK court ordering the news organisations to hand over leaked documents submitted to Interbrew by its financial advisers about a possible bid for South African Breweries.

The news organisations published stories on the take-over plan.

The UK court argued that there was a public interest in unmasking the leaker. The judgment was later upheld by a court of appeal and the House of Lords subsequently refused to give further leave to appeal.

IPI criticised the rulings. In one of the statements it issued, IPI said: "The fundamental issue in this case is the right of the media to protect their confidential sources. If such a right were diluted then the media would find it increasingly difficult to expose corporate malfeasance - a fact that would surely be harmful not only to the public who deserve accountability in these matters but also to corporations, such as Interbrew."

At one point during the case Interbrew sought to have the assets of the Guardian seized.

"Journalists' right to keep their sources of information confidential is a key element of news reporting. If this right is not upheld, any form of investigative journalism would be severely hampered," said IPI Director David Dadge. "We congratulate the European Court of Human Rights on this ruling and hope that it will serve as a reference for other courts around the world."

Interbrew claimed the documents had been faked by unknown persons to facilitate a share price fraud and wanted the documents back. The Financial Services Agency, a City watchdog, supported Interbrew.

The four news organisations defied the ruling and, joined by The Independent, pleaded the case for protection of sources, arguing that the court's order violated their right to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

According to an article on the Guardian, yesterday, the ECHR ruled that Interbrew's "interests in eliminating . . . the threat of damage through future dissemination of confidential information and in obtaining damages for past breaches of confidence were, even if considered cumulatively, insufficient to outweigh the public interest in the protection of journalists' sources".

Aside from the judgment, the ECHR ordered the UK government to pay the news organisations €160,000 (£143,000) between them for costs and expenses they incurred during the case, the Guardian reported.

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