The United States Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting case, ruled this week that journalists cannot be held liable for broadcasting or publishing information that is in the public interest -- even if that information was obtained illegally. The U.S. ruling does not permit journalists to break the law in pursuit of information, but if worthy news is furnished by a third party, the public has the right to hear it. Does the same hold true in Europe? How are the rights and responsibilities of journalists protected -- especially in EU member-states? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten discussed the issue with continental legal experts.
Prague, 24 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In 1989, the chief executive of France's Peugeot automobile company became the target of his employees' ire when details of his high salary were printed in a national weekly ("Le Canard Echaine"). He promptly sued the paper, starting a case that took nearly seven years to pass through the courts.
Toby Mendel of Article 19 -- a London-based organization that promotes press freedom across Europe -- details the story:
"The newspaper published his tax returns, showing that he had gotten an enormous salary increase while employees were being restricted or cut back. So it was an important political issue in France. It was established that the tax returns had been obtained illegally -- that is to say, they were confidential and should not have gotten into the public eye. So there was an illegality, like in the U.S. case. And the newspaper was convicted in France, held liable in France. When it went to the European Court of Human Rights, the court held [in 1996] that it was in the overall public interest for that material to be published and since the newspaper had not itself -- or at least there was no evidence that the newspaper had acted illegally -- it was legitimate for them to publish it."
National courts in European countries continue, on occasion, to prosecute journalists who disclose confidential information -- especially when that information is seen to harm individual or state interests. But the trend is ebbing, as the public's right to know is increasingly given priority. Jean-Christophe Manet of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) explains:
"Since the citizen in a democratic society has the right to be informed, the journalists have a duty to inform. In Europe, judges and courts tend now to consider that even if this right to inform is in contradiction with other legitimate interests, this right is, above all, the fundamental right to be protected."
When national courts do rule against European journalists, they can appeal their case to the European Court of Human Rights, a major organ of the Council of Europe. The court, of late, has moved to uphold journalists' rights -- and its judgments must be accepted by all 43 member-states of the Council of Europe. Says Manet:
"When a state like France, the Netherlands, Portugal is condemned by the European court, it has to pay a fine and revise its decision -- it's binding."
Manet says it is important to remember that journalists have to respect the law -- like all other citizens -- but that they are not agents of the state and must be free to impart the information they gather, in the manner and to the extent they choose, when it is newsworthy.
"The journalist is not working for the judicial system. His work is to inform. While the court is making justice, the police are doing their duty and the journalist is doing his own duty by getting his information, by his own means, and making the use he considers appropriate of the information he got."
Together with this freedom goes the right of journalists to protect their sources. This provision is very important, as it allows citizens to call attention to corruption or other illegal activities -- through the media -- without fear of reprisal. Otherwise, Manet says:
"If the journalist was compelled to explain and reveal the way he got his information, there would be no investigative journalism possible."
Toby Mendel of Article 19 notes that standards of protection for journalists still lag in several East European states that are members of the Council of Europe.
"Article 19 -- my organization -- works with organizations in many of the Central and Eastern European countries, and there remain enormous barriers [to press freedom]. For example, in Romania -- Romania and Ukraine -- criminal defamation laws are still very actively applied. And that's an enormous restriction on press freedom."
Criminal defamation laws allow courts to prosecute journalists for harming the reputation of an individual or state institution -- a tactic frequently used to silence muckraking reporters. Mendel says that even in the 15-member European Union, where journalists normally enjoy a high level of protection, standards vary.
"Even within Western Europe, you find quite a large disparity in terms of the protections."
Greece, for example, maintains legal clauses on criminal defamation. In addition, Greek courts can prosecute journalists for publishing false information -- even if unintentionally, and even if the information causes no determinable harm. In general, Mendel says, press freedom tends to be better protected in the United States, where explicit guarantees to free speech and access to information are broader.
Still, the issue remains sensitive and there can be no fixed guidelines. That is why cases involving journalists and their right to disseminate information will continue to come up before courts on both sides of the Atlantic. As Manet of Reporters Without Borders explains, sometimes investigative journalists -- by the nature of their work -- find themselves skirting the boundary of what is legal and illegal.
"Then, it is the responsibility of the court to judge if the result -- I mean, regarding the interest of the public to be informed -- did or did not justify the journalists' behavior?"
In most European countries, however, particularly in the EU, broad journalists' rights are increasingly being interpreted as a necessary safeguard for democracy.