The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Press Association (API) representing foreign press correspondents in Brussels, today condemned a recent statement by the European Commission’s security services which hints that journalists and lobbyists can provide cover for potential spies to search for sensitive and classified information.
“This sort of loose talk ends up smearing everyone working in journalism by casting a cloud of suspicion over them,” said EFJ General Secretary Aidan White. “Security concerns are one thing, but this sort of comment puts journalists at risk and makes their job of scrutinising public officials and the work of the Commission more difficult. European Union officials should do their jobs without raising scares about the honesty and integrity of correspondents working in Brussels”.
The European Commission fears that its confidential documents are increasingly at risk from spies. “We are not only pointing the finger at journalists. It could be the pretty trainee with the long legs and the blonde hair” Commission spokeswoman Valerie Rampi said yesterday after a report in the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quoted from a confidential letter from the director of the commission’s security services to its Director of human resources. ‘Recent cases show that the threat of espionage is increasing day by day. A number of countries, information seekers, lobbyists, journalists, private agencies and other third parties are continuing to seek sensitive and classified information’, said the Commission memo, which dates back to December.
“We need to remind the Commission that investigative journalism is in the public interest. Journalists have to look also for ‘sensitive and classified’ documents in order to inform the public and to place information in a truthful context. It is a legitimate and essential part of a democracy to allow reporters to ask searching questions and get access to documents some politicians and officials would prefer for their own vested interests to keep out of sight,” said Lorenzo Consoli, the President of API.
“The Commission has a poor record of its treatment of investigative journalists. For instance, we are still waiting for an official response from them to take responsibility and apologise over their bogus complaint against German Stern reporter Hans-Martin Tillack who was cleared last month of wrong-doing in his work to expose corruption in the European Union”, said White.
The EFJ has called on the Commission to investigate how its officials came to make the false accusation of bribery against Tillack and to carry out an independent inquiry into the case that for years cast a shadow over relations between Brussels journalists and the Commission. “Now the suggestion is that every journalist is a potential spy — it’s the worst kind of scaremongering,” said White.
The EFJ represents over 260,000 journalists in 30 countries.
"We are not only pointing the finger at journalists. It could be the pretty trainee with the long legs and the blonde hair," commission spokeswoman Valerie Rampi said on Wednesday (11 February).
The remarks come after the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the same day published parts of a confidential letter from the director of the commission's security services to its head of resources.
"The threat of espionage is increasing day by day. A number of countries, information seekers, lobbyists, journalists, private agencies and other third parties are continuing to seek sensitive and classified information," the commission memo, dating back to December, said.
The work is done by "intelligence officers, or persons directly linked to the intelligence services who adopt a range of covers."
Ms Rampi noted that the head of Belgium's security services, Alain Winants, in January told Flemish magazine Mo that the location of the European Commission and NATO headquarters make Brussels a target for Russian spies.
"This is something that 'in globo' has been noticed by all Western intelligence services - that the activity of the Russian services abroad has risen exponentially. That it displays a certain aggressiveness, self-consciousness," Mr Winants said.
Some of the European Commission's most sensitive documents relate to competition law or trade decisions that could give a financial advantage to individual corporations.
Last September, an EU trade official allegedly offered to sell secrets on upcoming import tariff rulings to reporters from the UK's Sunday Times posing as Chinese businessmen.
The European Commission also has access to texts from the EU's "Situation Centre," a Brussels-based office run by EU member state secret service personnel, which drafts reports on, for example, terrorism risks or war crimes fugitives, for EU foreign relations chief Javier Solana.
The commission on Wednesday said that mention of journalists in the security memo in no way has an impact on freedom of press in the EU capital.
Brussels' respect for freedom of press was in recent years put in doubt by the case of German reporter Hans-Martin Tillack.
The Belgian police, allegedly acting on an informal tip from commission officials about bribery, in 2002 seized several boxes of Mr Tillack's documents, computers and mobile phones.
He was later cleared, but the police held the materials until 2008, potentially exposing his sources to scrutiny and making other EU officials think twice about informal contact with the press.
"The commissioner [anti-fraud chief Siim Kallas] has the utmost respect for your profession, press freedom and the need to protect sources," Ms Rampi told journalists on Wednesday.
FAZ, on the Report about security threats at the EU