28th Mar 2023

German reporter loses EU press freedom case

German reporter Hans-Martin Tillack's claim that the European Commission punished him for exposing EU fraud by using the Belgian police to snatch his files has not been proved, EU courts in Luxembourg ruled on Wednesday morning (4 October).

"The court considers that there is not a sufficiently direct causal link between the forwarding of the information [that Mr Tillack bribed EU officials] by OLAF to the Belgian judicial authorities and the damage claimed in order for liability to be established on that basis," the Court of First Instance judgement stated.

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  • The decision - which could set a precedent - can still be appealed (Photo: wikiepdia)

The decision clears the way for the EU-anti fraud office, OLAF, to examine the reporter's contact books - currently in Belgian police hands - in its hunt for an internal leak that helped Mr Tillack break major stories about EU corruption back in 2002.

It is also set to discourage other people from bringing similar accusations against non-transparent forms of cooperation between the EU anti-fraud authorities and national police.

And it further clears OLAF of smearing the journalist's name with public bribery allegations between 2002 and 2004, in a judgment that Mr Tillack and the International Federation of Journalists see as a blow against press freedom and democracy in the heart of the European Union.

"It's a licence for OLAF to lie," Mr Tillack told EUobserver. "It's astonishing that the court allows an EU institution to present rumours as facts. This is damaging to journalists' rights and to the rights of European citizens as well."

Verdict is no surprise

The verdict did not come as a surprise, with a previous legal opinion by the president of the Court of First Instance - the EU's lower court - in October 2004 already saying there is "no causal link" between OLAF's allegations of bribery and Belgium's sovereign decision to seize the journalist's files.

Mr Tillack, who works for German magazine Stern, has also lost related complaints against the Belgian authorities and German OLAF director Franz-Hermann Bruner in the Belgian and German national legal systems over the past four years.

But the story is not over yet. The reporter can still appeal Wednesday's decision at the EU's high court in Luxembourg - the European Court of Justice - and has already launched a separate case against Belgium at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Strasbourg case is at an early stage, with the court sending notification to the Belgian and German governments in late August and waiting for their written response by 24 November before deciding how to proceed with the complaint.

Belgian police gets moving

There are also signs that the Belgian police has started to move in its original investigation of the OLAF bribery allegations. The police has held onto more than 1,000 pages of Mr Tillack's files since 2004 despite never having brought formal charges against him.

Late last year, the European Commission lifted the immunity of two middle-ranking officials that could be connected to the OLAF leak, potentially opening the door for Belgian prosecutors to cross-examine the men.

On top of this, the European Parliament's petitions committee is waiting to write a report on the European Ombudsman's allegation that OLAF director Mr Bruner lied to him over the Tillack bribery issue, with the closure of the legal case in Luxembourg giving MEPs the green light to proceed.

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