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Free way to spy on journalists? A regulation on media in Europe unleashes controversy

It is a directive presented with the aim of protecting the freedom of the press. But the media and NGOs warn that it can have the opposite effect.

The European Commission believes that the journalistic profession and the media live under threats and in September last year presented the ‘Media Freedom Act’, a directive on media freedom which should serve to guarantee their pluralism, reinforce the editorial independence of the newsrooms, avoid media concentration in a few hands, defend the rights of journalists and even “prevent the use of espionage devices against the media, journalists and their families”.

The press greeted her with applause. The associations of journalists from half of Europe supported what they considered a move towards media independence.

Criticism came from the owners of the media companies, but the Commission went ahead. He said that governments they cannot “detain, sanction, intercept, place under surveillance or investigate” journalists to discover its sources.

Flags of the European Union, at the headquarters of the European Commission, in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: REUTERS

Risks to press freedom

Nor should they be able to intercept the communications of journalists except in cases of rigorous national security, on a case-by-case basis and with judicial authorization, or when such surveillance can be used to investigate “serious crimes.”

Not just anyone is valid, but the definition given by the European Commission itself: terrorism, human or arms trafficking, child exploitation, murder or rape. Thus up to 10 types of crimes.

This Wednesday the governments gave their political approval to their common position, which is the one that will be used to negotiate the final text with a delegation from the European Parliament. But governments got so involved in the Commission’s proposal that the same journalist associations that applauded the original proposal now they attack her.

More than 60 signed a text in which they say that the version approved by the 27 “imposes serious risks to press freedom, freedom of expression and the protection of journalists.”

Article 4 is the great danger, they say. They believe that if the project of the European Commission was acceptable, without being perfect, the changes introduced by the governments make it unacceptable because jeopardize the protection of journalists and that of their sources of information.

Article 4, as it emerges from the negotiation between the 27, says that the States will not spy on the media, journalists and their families, but imposes a very general exception, not very specific, when it comes to “safeguarding the security national”.

The media and journalists fear advances against press freedom in Europe.  Photo: AFP

The media and journalists fear advances against press freedom in Europe. Photo: AFP

“National security”

The text of the European Commission already included this exception, but “case by case” and with judicial control. The one that comes out of the negotiation between the governments leaves it open to any government to spy on journalists or media alleging risks to national security without the authorization of a judge and massively, not on a case-by-case basis.

The country that most insisted on including this exception was France. According to various specialized media, those who supported France the most were the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg and Greece.

Precisely, the Greek government was forced to advance the general elections this year after the scandal unleashed by the massive espionage of the opposition and of journalists and media.

In a letter sent to the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU -his six-month term ends this coming June 30, when he will pass the post to Spain-, France had said that “it is essential to strike a balance between the need to protect the confidentiality of the sources of journalists and the need to protect citizens and the State against serious threats whoever the perpetrator may be.”

Sweden accepted the French request and the list of crimes that fall within the exceptions to the protection of the secrecy of sources was extended from 10 to 32.

The letter from the journalists’ associations, which is also signed by NGOs in defense of human rights, ensures that now the text “weakens the guarantees against the deployment of espionage devices and equally strongly encourages their use on the sole basis of power discretionary of the Member States”.

Journalists and media associations now hope that the delegation sent to negotiate by the European Parliament will force governments to back down and go back to the original proposal of the European Commission.

Brussels, special


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