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20th May 2019

German journalist gets court backing in EU leak case

The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday (27 November) ruled that Belgian police violated the right to freedom of expression of a Brussels-based German journalist by raiding his home and office back in 2004.

Consequently, Belgium will have to pay Hans-Martin Tillack €10,000 for moral damages as well as €30,000 in costs.

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  • Mr Tillack does not exclude coming back to Brussels as "the EU needs critical coverage" (Photo: EUobserver)

The ECHR ruling also underlines that the right of journalists to protect their sources is a fundamental component of the freedom of the press.

The whole issue started in 2002 when the journalist - then Brussels correspondent for German magazine Stern - published articles on alleged irregularities in the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF, based on internal documents from the organisation.

OLAF then stated that it was possible that someone had been bribed to leak the documents - something which both Mr Tillack and Stern magazine refuted.

In early 2004, OLAF sent the results of its internal investigation on the matter to the Belgian authorities. A police action followed which resulted in Mr Tillack being detained by the Belgian police for several hours, his home and office being searched, and possessions such as 16 boxes of documents, two archive boxes, two computers and four mobile phones being seized.

But according to the ECHR, the journalist was put under suspicion following "vague and not sustained rumours" - something confirmed by the fact that he was never formally charged.

Right to protecting sources

Tuesday's ruling also constitutes a victory regarding the right of journalists to protect their sources - a point of key importance to Mr Tillack.

He had argued that OLAF's allegations that he had bribed EU officials for information, as well as the police raid that followed, were only aiming to identify his sources within the anti-fraud office.

"The protection of journalistic sources is one of the corner stones of the freedom of the press" - which in its turn "constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society", the ECHR verdict reads.

Mr Tillack had previously brought the case to the Belgian and the European Community courts – without success. He had argued that OLAF should not be allowed to inspect his possessions - upholding the protection of sources principle - and also asked for compensation.

'Good news' for Brussels-based journalists

As of today, the German journalist has still not recovered his possessions from the Belgian police and the question remains to what extent OLAF or the European Commission have had access to his documents, Mr Tillack pointed out during a meeting with journalists in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon.

However, he welcomed the ECHR ruling as "good news for all journalists based in Belgium and covering the EU", and as a signal to the European Commission to proceed with caution when "attacking" journalists.

Previously, Belgian law had come under fire by journalist associations for not offering enough protection to their sources. But the country tightened up the laws protecting journalists in late 2004.

Mr Tillack's counsel, Ian Forrester, welcomed the ECHR's ruling as well, stating that it had the merit of confirming that "effective judicial review exists when a European institution tries to abuse national criminal process in order to strike at press freedom".

Commission has no comment

The European commission was not a party to the procedures launched by Mr Tillack against Belgium, and "has therefore no particular comment on the judgement", Johannes Laitenberger, spokesperson of the commission, said on Wednesday (28 November).

"Neither OLAF nor the commission have the possibility to order member states' authorities to take any particular action", he added.

However, Mr Laitenberger said the EU executive was strongly commited to respecting the court's jurisprudence as well as fundamental rights.

"This includes liberty of the media and liberty of the media obviously includes also as a very important principle the protection of journalistic sources – within the confines of the law (…). So, obviously the commission takes the protection of journalistic sources very seriously and not only respects, but endorses this principle", he said.

For its part, OLAF declined to comment on a judgement which it said concerned only the Belgian state.

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