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Monday, September 26, 2005

EU critical stuff, part 2

Alteratively, the territories Oceania & Eurasia come to mind., 12th August 2005
[Comment] Freedom of the press fundamental for democracy, by Hans-Martin Tillack

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - It was some weeks after the Belgian
Police had raided my home and office in Brussels on 19 March

I had to visit the Belgian Police investigators
headquarters, as they wanted to decide which material they
would return to me - and what they would like to keep, out
of the 17 boxes with documents, basically my complete
archives, they had carried away.

During this meeting, I had a conversation with the
responsible police detective, a Walloon named Philippe
Charlier. "Why do you go through all of this ordeal?" he
asked me. "Why did you not simply reveal to us the name of
your source in the EU Anti-Fraud Office [Olaf]?"

"Because, if I had done so my career as a journalist would
have been finished," I explained. "My sources would have
dried up. Nobody would have given me any confidential
information any more."

"Why?", Charlier asked. "Okay, you would have burned one
source. But that would not have hindered your access to all
possible official channels of information."

"What?," I replied. "What kind of a journalism would that be
where you could only base your reporting on official press
releases and the words of those who govern us?" Mr Charlier
was smiling again.

I was not sure whether he got my point. It is not always
easy to explain why protection of sources is essential for
the work of journalists.

++ Who controls the flow of information?

Some people still seem to believe that journalists are
looking for undue privileges when they shield their sources
and refuse to reveal the name of informers, even in the face
of prosecutors or policemen.

The fight for the protection of sources is directly linked
to a question fundamental to the survival of an open
democracy: Who controls the flow of information?

Should governments, bureaucracies or big companies
themselves decide what information is made public and what
not? Or should there be a chance for citizens to receive
information through other channels?

Free and democratic societies can only benefit from a free
flow of information and therefore from the protection of the
sources. Secrecy, on the other hand, is only beneficial to
those in power - and who have something important to hide.

That is why those in power, be it in Washington, Brussels or
Berlin will often do their utmost to find out who
transmitted embarrassing information.

++ The case of Judith Miller

Who controls the flow of information? The case of the New
York Times journalist Judith Miller touches on this question
in two ways.

On 6 July, she was sent to prison because she refused to say
who told her that Valery Plame was a covert CIA agent.
Apparently people in the Bush administration had an interest
in leaking this information in order to undermine the
credibility of Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, an outspoken
critic of the Iraq war.

He had revealed the fact that reports about Iraqi
preparations for a nuclear bomb had been cooked. He had
spread unwanted information and was therefore persona non
grata for the US government.

Judith Miller certainly did the right thing when she refused
to reveal her source. This is true although some attacked
her for having acted like an "embedded journalist" by often
making the case for an invasion of Iraq - and often basing
her stories on anonymous sources in the Bush administration.

What is very particular about this case is the wide
attention it received around the globe. There has been an
outcry in the public and a wide debate, of which we
Europeans can only be envious.

After all, in Europe in recent years we have seen attacks on
journalists' rights which were no less dangerous. Take the
case of the Belgian journalist, Martine Ernst from the TV
station RTBF, and of three of her colleagues. 160 Policemen
were sent out on 23 June 1995 to search the offices of RTBF
and the private flats of the journalists.

They had reported extensively about the inquiries into the
1991 murder of the Belgian politician André Cools - and
about the links between his case and the bribes which
Belgian political parties apparently received from two big
weapon makers.

In October 1998, it was the turn of the Luxembourger
journalist, Rob Roehmen, then editor of the "Lëtzebuerger
Journal". His house and office were turned upside down by
police after he disclosed a story that was embarrassing for
the then interior minister of the country, Michel Wolter.

In both cases the reporters concerned had exposed facts that
were embarrassing for the authorities. And these European
cases have something else in common: they received much less
public attention - even in Europe itself - than Judith
Miller's story.

++ Learning the lesson

On 19 March 2004, it was my turn to receive an early morning
visit from six Belgian police men in plain clothes. To date,
they still have nearly 1000 pages of documents, copies of my
computer hard drives, address books and diary.

I have filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights
in Strasbourg, against Belgium - and against the EU
Commission, at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

But that will not undo the damage. Just by going through my
address book and my files the Belgian Police and Olaf can
see with whom I was in contact.

But at least countries like Belgium and Luxembourg have
learned their lesson. Both countries have introduced new
press laws, which ban similar violations of the protection
of sources.

Those who have not yet learned the lesson are the officials
who run the EU institutions. Those mainly responsible for
the raid in the Brussels office of my publication were not
Belgians, but a circle of EU officials.

This story shows in a nutshell how strong the hostility to
independent journalism still is in Brussels.

The EU institutions seem to be largely unused to critical
coverage in the media. It is perhaps a logical consequence
of the fact that there is no opposition in parliament and
very little day-to-day pressure from the media.

++ Fraud and the EU

For my part, it all started in February and March 2002 when
I published two articles based on internal Olaf documents.

They not only allowed me to reveal for the first time that
there were several fraud investigations running into
Eurostat - investigations which though had remained purely
on paper until we revealed their existence.

The documents also suggested that the Commission was hardly
showing the "zero tolerance" attitude towards fraud that
President Romano Prodi had promised.

Then on 27 March 2002 Olaf spokesman Alessandro Butticé
published a press release according to which "a journalist"
might have paid an official. In an internal e-mail to all
Olaf staff, Mr Butticé told a different story: There he
admitted that there were only "rumours" to back up the
bribery claim.

Unfortunately for Olaf and the Commission, my sources did
not dry out. In the following two years I was able to sign
quite a couple of additional stories about suspected
Commission fraud and about Olaf's striking failure to combat

Olaf boss Franz-Hermann Bruner decided to step up his
activities - not against fraud, but against my reporting.

In February 2004, he had criminal complaints filed against
me with the Belgian and German authorities. The Belgian
Police came to my place and this was immediately followed by
an Olaf statement that they had nothing to do with the
search. It took them a whole weekend to admit that this was

In July 2004, President Romano Prodi and Commissioner
Schreyer even decided to turn down a proposal from the
President of the Court of First Instance, Bo Vesterdorf.

He had proposed that the Commission declare "that it will
not address itself to the Belgian authorities in order to
get access to all documents relating" to my case as long as
it is pending before the EU Court.

Mr Vesterdorf's proposal would have protected my sources
from scrutiny by Commission officials. Prodi and Schreyer
decided to act against this protection and to reject the

Subsequently the Court of First Instance and the European
Court of Justice turned my requests for interim measures
down. They not only allowed the Commission to seek access to
my files but did not even mention the principle of
protection of sources in their rulings.

Look at what happened to the intervention of the European
Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros. In May 2005 he issued a
Special Report to the European Parliament that accused Olaf
of having repeatedly presented misleading and wrong
information about my case.

Mr Diamandouros had found evidence against two men: Olaf
chief Bruner and his colleague Nick Ilett. What did the
Parliament's leaders do? In a meeting on 7 July 2005, they
decided to ditch a draft parliament report on that matter
and cancelled a hearing which was already scheduled.

++ I'll scratch your back...

It all seems to follow the same old principle: I'll scratch
your back, if you scratch mine. In fact, Mr Bruner had
spared not only the Commission, but also the Parliament from
embarrassing revelations about fraud in their own houses.

What Olaf had conducted in the Parliament's administration
were mere "fake investigations", experts of the Olaf
Supervisory Committee wrote in an internal note in March

During a hearing in July 2005, almost all of the mainstream
MEPs praised Olaf's work. That was surprising given that the
European Court of Auditors had confronted them with a
damning report about Mr Bruner's work.

The Commission continues to stand by Mr Bruner

Commissioner Siim Kallas has repeated several times, that Mr
Bruner has "good chances" to be reappointed. Just before the
summer break the Commission put his name on a shortlist of
five candidates - the new director will be chosen in autumn.

++ Attacks on press freedom

Some people tend to think that the recent attacks on press
freedom in the US are typical of the ruthlessness of the
current Bush administration.

I tend to think that abuses always occur when governments or
any other organisations are not sufficiently accountable to

That was certainly true for the US government after the
terror attacks of 9/11 where it was deemed unpatriotic to
question the president's activities in the so-called war
against terror.

There were few voices in the US congress that were critical
of the invasion of Iraq. And there were only some
journalists who dared to question the case for a war against
Saddam Hussein. If someone such as Joseph Wilson spoke out,
his reputation had to be undermined in order to restore the
carefully assembled picture.

Unlike Washington, the Brussels institutions have little
military firepower at their disposal.

Unlike President George Bush, Commission President José
Manuel Barroso cannot launch a war against the most tiny
middle east sheikdom.

But as in Washington after 9/11, there is a conformist
tendency in Brussels from which many have suffered in past
years: Whistleblowers like Paul van Buitenen or Marta
Andreasen where both painted as mad by the Commission and
also by many journalists.

When there is no opposition, there is also no one to
question the official spin. Therefore, many journalists find
it easier to simply spread the message the executive wants
to have spread.

In the political culture of the EU capital there seems to be
too many people - commissioners, officials, deputies,
perhaps even judges - who have something to hide and who are
therefore eager to make sure that information is not leaked
to the press.

This is bad news for journalists in Brussels - but also for
the credibility of the EU institutions.

The author is former Brussels editor of German weekly
magazine Stern and now reports for the publication from


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