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


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 European court ruled that the searches and seizures had been disproportionate, violating Martine, Alain, René and Philippe's right to privacy and their right to provide and receive information as journalists.


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

Man cleared of defamation after responding to allegations of contaminated drinking water

Zoran Šabanović was given a suspended prison sentence for defamation over claims he made related to water contamination. The European court found that Zoran’s conviction breached his right to free speech. Montenegro then decriminalised defamation and Zoran was acquitted after a re-trial.

Read more

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