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Major victory for press freedom, protecting journalist's sources

European Court for Human Rights defends the right of journalists to protect sources.
European Court for Human Rights defends the right of journalists to protect sources.

Council of Europe

The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on 14 September that police cannot search media premises or seize journalistic material - upholding the rights of journalists to protect their sources, report ARTICLE 19, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

The initial ruling came in March 2009 in the case of Sanoma v. the Netherlands, in which the Finnish-owned Dutch magazine publisher was forced to give police a CD containing photographs related to a story in "Auto Week" magazine about illegal car racing. Sanoma took the case to the ECHR with support from IFJ affiliate, the Nederlandse Vereniging van Journalisten (NVJ).

Police had applied severe pressure on the magazine publisher, and even arrested its editor briefly, thus compelling the publisher to hand over information about its sources to police investigating another crime. The magazine had strong objections to being forced to share information that would identify confidential sources.

The Grand Chamber of the ECHR has now ruled that there was a violation of the principle of protection of sources according to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and that the police interference was not "prescribed by law". The ECHR held that police cannot search journalists' materials unless they can show it is absolutely necessary in the investigation of a serious crime and have obtained a judicial warrant.

The ruling "will force police and prosecutors across Europe, from Russia to France, to change their practices," said Geoffrey Robertson QC, counsel for a coalition of intervening organisations.

"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 court has significantly strengthened journalists' ability to gather and report information of public interest," commented WAN-IFRA, the European Newspaper Publishers' Association (ENPA) and the World Editors Forum.

ARTICLE 19, CPJ, the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Guardian News and Media Limited and the Open Society Justice Initiative intervened jointly in the lawsuit, with support from WAN-IFRA, Index on Censorship, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, ENPA, Condé Nast Publications, Hearst Corporation, the National Geographic Society, the New York Times Company, La Repubblica, Reuters, Time Inc., and the Washington Post Company.

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