The International Federation of Journalists has welcomed a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that the UK government violated press freedom as a key step towards protecting journalists sources.
The judgement comes following a four year case brought by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism with the support of the IFJ.
The IFJ along with its UK affiliate the NUJ had backed the case, and made a joint submission to the ECHR. The NUJ said the judgement represented a significant victory for the campaign to protect journalists’ sources and the right of journalists to adhere to the NUJ’s ethical code of conduct that states:
“A journalist protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work.”
The ruling also represents a blow to the UK government and its pursuit of repressive surveillance laws.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the ECHR ruled that mass surveillance by GCHQ and other intelligence agencies, without adequate safeguards to protect the freedom of the press, is unlawful. The case will force the government to review how it intercepts journalists’ communications.
The Bureau’s case was part of a wider submission supported by the NUJ, IFJ and brought by human rights organisations including Amnesty, Privacy International, and Liberty following the revelations about the invasive surveillance by GCHQ and other agencies revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.
The Bureau was specifically concerned about the chilling effect that mass surveillance may have on whistleblowers seeking to reveal wrongdoing to investigative journalists, and the difficulty of guaranteeing a source’s anonymity when communications are being monitored in such a pervasive way.
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said the ruling was a victory for all journalists across Europe. “While the judgement is about a specific case in the UK the principles recognised by the ECHR apply across Europe. Governments should be warned that repressive surveillance laws and the unwarranted mass collection of data will be rigorously challenged to protect journalists’ rights and media freedom”.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “This ruling is a great result for ethical journalism and journalists in the UK. We have been campaigning for years against the UK government’s repressive surveillance laws that are detrimental to the public interest. We will continue to use all the avenues available to us to improve and amend the current laws and codes of practice. The Bureau should be congratulated for its excellent work and this is a hugely significant and positive outcome.”
The Bureau’s Managing Editor Rachel Oldroyd welcomed the ECHR judgment and said: “The Bureau believes the freedom of the press is a vital cornerstone of democracy and that journalists must be able to protect their sources. We are particularly concerned about the chilling effect that the threat of state surveillance has on whistleblowers who want to expose wrongdoing, and this ruling will force our government to put safeguards in place. It is an extremely good day for journalism.”
The court was particularly worried about the potential deliberate targeting of journalists work by security agencies without measures in place to protect confidentiality. The court “expressed particular concern” about the absence of any published safeguards relating to the circumstances in which confidential journalistic material could be selected.
The court found that the UK government was in breach of Article 10, the right to freedom of expression, because of the “potential chilling effect that any perceived interference with the confidentiality of journalists’ communications and, in particular, their sources might have on the freedom of the press.”
Gavin Millar QC, counsel for TBIJ, said: “The government must now rewrite the law as to how the security and intelligence service can look at and use journalists confidential communications and material. Secretive arrangements like these cannot continue. There must be a public interest which overrides the vital right to journalistic free speech before officials can scrutinise such material.”