Europe court rules Dutch police violated publication’s right to protect sources

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[JURIST] Police in the Netherlands violated a Dutch magazine’s right to free expression by compelling disclosure of documentary evidence relating to anonymous sources, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled [judgment text] Tuesday. The unanimous ruling centered around a 2002 feature on illegal street racing published in the Dutch edition of Autoweek [media website, in Dutch], a property of Sanoma Uitgevers. The magazine’s editorial staff promised anonymity to members of an underground racing group to gain access to a late-night race in the Dutch town of Hoorn, including photographs and interviews. Police suspected one of the cars appearing in the photos of being used as a getaway car in a string of bank robberies and demanded the magazine turn over all of the pictures the photographer had taken. When Autoweek refused, authorities arrested Editor-in-Chief Tonie Broekhuijsen. The magazine ultimately turned over a CD containing photographs taken at the race to Dutch prosecutors and filed suit seeking its return. The Dutch Supreme Court [official website, in Dutch] affirmed the state’s right to the pictures. The ECHR panel said that the confiscation of the CD violated Article 10 of the Euorpean Convention on Human Rights [materials], which provides “the freedom … to receive and impart information without interference by public authority.” In a statement [text], the court said the process by which the Netherlands compelled disclosure of the pictures was “deficient”:

The most important safeguard [against violation of free expression rights] was the guarantee of review by a judge or other independent and impartial decision-making body. It should be carried out by a body separate from the executive and other interested parties, invested with the power to determine whether a requirement in the public interest overriding the principle of protection of journalistic sources existed prior to the handing over of such material and to prevent unnecessary access to information capable of disclosing the sources’ identity if it did not. … In the Netherlands … that decision was entrusted to the public prosecutor rather than an independent judge. In terms of procedure the public prosecutor was a “party”, who could hardly be seen as objective and impartial.

In an Autoweek report [text, in Dutch] Tuesday, which reprinted the photos and an excerpt of the original story, Broekhuijsen said, “It’s a matter of principle, and I am very pleased with this ruling.”

Many recent disputes have arisen over freedom of the press in Europe, with the ECHR at the center of a number of them. Also Tuesday, the tribunal ruled [JURIST report] that Turkey failed to protect the life of well-known Turkish-American writer and journalist Hrant Dink [BBC obituary; JURIST news archive], failed to adequately investigate his murder and infringed on his right to freedom of expression. Dink, editor of the newspaper Agos [media website] was killed [JURIST report] in January 2007 after law enforcement officials had been informed that an assassination was likely but did not act on the information. In April, the ECHR ordered the government of Azerbaijan [JURIST report] to secure the immediate release of imprisoned Azeri journalist Eynulla Fatuallyev, who was jailed on what many international organizations claim are spurious charges. Last October, the court ruled that Turkish authorities violated [JURIST report] European human rights laws in shutting down four newspapers accused of publishing propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) [GlobalSecurity backgrounder] in a ruling also based on Article 10.

Read more detail on JURIST – Paper Chase

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