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ECHR ruling bolsters media freedom, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 16 September 2010 - Today the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that media premises are exempt from police searches, marking a major victory for press freedom across the continent.

"This ruling was an acid test for the Court and for media freedom across Europe," said Geoffrey Robertson QC, counsel for a coalition of intervening organisations. "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."

In its decision in Sanoma v. the Netherlands, the Court reversed an earlier ruling and held that police cannot search media premises or seize journalistic materials unless they can show it is absolutely necessary in the investigation of a serious crime and have obtained a judicial warrant.

"A number of recent judgments had raised questions about the European Court's commitment to the original principles of its Article 10 jurisprudence," said Darian Pavli, legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative. "Today's ruling reaffirms the vital importance of free media as a cornerstone of any democratic society."

The judgment upholds and builds on earlier rulings such as Goodwin v. UK, which established the right of journalists to protect their sources.

"In this judgment, the European Court lays down a clear marker for the protection of journalistic materials," said Peter Noorlander, legal director at the Media Legal Defence Initiative. "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 Court today said in the clearest terms that all European nations must have strong laws that protect the media's fundamental right to confidential sources in order to ensure the public's right to know. Every country must now review their laws and ensure that these rights are fully respected," said David Banisar, Senior Legal Counsel for ARTICLE 19.

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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