Back

Excessive police operation against journalists leads to reforms to protect media sources

Ernst and Others v. Belgium  | 2003

Excessive police operation against journalists leads to reforms to protect media sources

This case has implications for every journalist working in Europe. It confirms that the freedom to inform and to maintain professional standards of quality and accuracy form benchmark decisions for journalism in Europe.

Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists. Reported by IFEX, 17 July 2003 
© Photos Martine Ernst / Resistances / IGIHE / blog decès célèbres

Background

Martine Ernst, Alain Guillaume, René Haquin and Philippe Brewaeys were journalists. In 1995 a huge operation was carried out to search their workplaces, homes and cars. It involved 160 police officers. The warrant had given the officers almost unlimited scope to seize documents and objects, without specifying where the search could take place or what the seizures were for.

The search was related to the prosecution of government employees for leaking confidential information. However, none of the journalists involved had written any articles containing secret information. They were not accused of any offence or told why the search was happening.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The court ruled that the searches and seizures had been disproportionate, violating the applicants’ right to privacy and their right to provide and receive information as journalists.

Follow-up

In 2005 the Belgian Parliament adopted a law on the protection of media sources. This made it illegal to seek information about journalists’ sources - in particular through searches or seizures – in the majority of circumstances.


Related examples

Privacy reforms after retired couple had their phone tapped

Jacques and Janine Huvig were a retired couple who had run a fruit-and-vegetable business. Police tapped their phone and listened to their conversations. At the time, investigators had almost limitless powers to tap the phones of almost anyone for almost any reason. The European court ruled that there must be clear legal limits and safeguards to protect people’s privacy – leading to a change in...

Read more

Justice for businessman subjected to a police raid just because of someone else’s traffic violation

Jürgen Buck ran a small business in a town near Frankfurt. One afternoon police suddenly raided his house and office. Jürgen alleged that suspicions were raised locally that he was involved in crime, leading to a loss of business. Yet the raid had merely been an unnecessary step in proceedings against Jürgen’s son for speeding. The European court ruled that the raid had been disproportionate.

Read more

Nurse compensated after being fired for whistleblowing

Brigitte Heinisch was a geriatric nurse. She claimed that practices in the old people’s home where she worked were putting patients at risk. After she made her allegations public, she was fired. Yet, the German courts found that her dismissal was lawful - so Mrs Heinisch took her case to Strasbourg. Her case was then re-opened and she won compensation.

Read more

New rules to protect media pluralism after company prevented from broadcasting

Italian television was dominated by a small number of channels, with little diversity of ownership. When Centro Europa 7 tried to set up new channels, they were refused access to a broadcast frequency. The company complained to the Strasbourg court that the authorities were maintaining the concentration of media power in Italy. The case led to new rules for protecting media pluralism.

Read more

Justice for man made to pay huge fine for publishing criticism of a public official

Zoran Lepojić wrote an article saying that a mayor had wasted public money. The mayor successfully brought defamation charges, and Mr Lepojić was fined more than 8 average monthly salaries. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been unreasonable, violating Mr Lepojić’s right to free speech. The Supreme Court of Serbia took steps to protect freedom of expression in such circumstances.

Read more

Secret filming of a child in a bathroom and the reform of privacy laws

Eliza Söderman was 14 when she found out that her stepfather had hidden a secret camera to record her undressing. The police got involved, but the stepfather was cleared of any crime because his actions had not been illegal under Swedish law. The Strasbourg court found that this violated Ms Söderman’s right to privacy. The case highlighted the need for legal reforms.

Read more

Reforms to protect free speech after journalists sued

Matti Paloaro and Pentti Eerikäinen were journalists. They reported on the prosecution of a businesswoman, who had abused public funds and was later sentenced to prison. The businesswoman sued the journalists, claiming they had invaded her privacy by publicising her prosecution. The businesswoman won in the Finnish courts – but the Strasbourg court ruled in favour of the journalists.

Read more

Journalist convicted for asking questions wins free speech case at European court

In a report on alleged corruption in Portuguese football, José Manuel Colaço Mestre asked questions to an interviewee about the dual role played by Mr Pinto de Costa, who was then both Chairman of FC Porto and President of the Portuguese Football League. Because of these questions, Mr Colaço Mestre and his employer were both found guilty of criminal defamation in the Portuguese courts.

Read more

Senator put in prison for criticising the government

Senator Miguel Castells wrote an article claiming that the government was failing to investigate a series of murders. He was convicted of insulting the government and sentenced to a year in prison. The European court ruled that his right to free speech had been violated. The Spanish Constitutional Court then developed its case law to provide greater protection to free speech in Spain.

Read more

Newspaper’s free speech victory leads to reforms

In 1988 the local newspaper Bladet Tromsø published claims by a government inspector alleging misconduct by certain seal hunters. The Norwegian courts found the newspaper liable for defamation, saying that it had relied too heavily on government reports. The Strasbourg court ruled that this violated the paper’s right to free speech – leading to reforms to protect freedom of expression.

Read more

DNA records of innocent people destroyed after privacy complaint

Two men from Sheffield had DNA samples taken by the police. Criminal charges against them were dropped. However, under British law the police could retain their DNA forever. The Strasbourg court ruled that keeping DNA records of innocent people breached their right to privacy.

Read more

Justice for animal rights campaigners who had pamphlets seized by police

Elina Goussev and Michael Marenk were protesting against the fur trade. Police searched their homes and seized campaign materials. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had breached their right to free speech, as the seizure had not been clearly justified by Finnish law. After the case had been submitted to the court, reforms were made to prevent arbitrary seizures.

Read more

Limits on government surveillance and the right to access information

R.V. was a postman. Along with 200 others, he was put under secret surveillance by security services – allegedly for being part of the Peace Movement. The European Commission for Human Rights found that Dutch law had not properly protected the applicants, violating their right to privacy. A new law was passed to clearly set out the circumstances and conditions in which secret surveillance can...

Read more

CCTV footage of suicide attempt used for publicity

A local authority’s CCTV cameras recorded a man attempting suicide. The local authority released the pictures to the media, after which they appeared in newspapers and on television. The Strasbourg Court ruled that the release of the images had been an unnecessary violation of the man’s privacy.

Read more

Justice for man who was fined for writing an article

Isaak Grinberg wrote an opinion article criticising a local governor. The governor sued Mr Grinberg for defamation, making him pay a fine. The Strasbourg court ruled that Mr Grinberg had been punished for giving a value judgment about a public figure. This violated his right to free speech. Mr Grinberg was awarded €1,120 in compensation.

Read more

Greater protection for the media after journalist fined for refusing to reveal the identity of his source

Journalist William Goodwin was given leaked information about a company. The company wanted to sue the source of the leak - but Mr Goodwin refused to reveal their identity. The UK courts fined Mr Goodwin 5,000 pounds for contempt of court. The Strasbourg court ruled this had violated his right to receive and give out information.

Read more

Privacy laws strengthened after a lawyer’s phone calls were intercepted

The authorities tapped the telephone of lawyer Hans Kopp and listened to confidential conversations. The Strasbourg court ruled that Swiss law had not properly limited the interception of confidential communications by the authorities. This violated Mr Kopp’s right to respect for privacy, leading to stronger legal protections.

Read more

Legal challenge brings an end to the state monopoly on TV and radio

During the 1970s and 1980s, various Austrians wanted to set up local TV or radio stations. However, Austrian law banned them from doing so, as it gave the Austrian Broadcasting Company a monopoly. The Strasbourg court ruled that the ban was disproportionate and violated the right to free speech. The judgment led to the opening up of broadcasting regulations.

Read more

Fairer television coverage for small political parties

Small political parties received virtually no television news coverage, and were banned from TV advertising. The Strasbourg court ruled that this left the Pensioner’s Party no way of transmitting its message on TV, violating its right to freedom speech. Reforms were made to political broadcasting rules, requiring the national broadcaster to include smaller parties in its TV coverage.

Read more

Reforms made after pensioner given unreasonable punishments

Sofija Tešić received a monthly pension equivalent to 170 euros. After she lost a defamation case, every month two-thirds of her pension was taken to pay off her debt – leaving her without money to pay for medication. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been disproportionate. The Serbian courts changed their case law to limit defamation awards, and enforcement proceedings were also...

Read more