By Daniel Nolan
While Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar joined other European leaders to march for media freedom following the attack on Charlie Hebdo last month, Anuska Delic, a journalist at the country’s leading daily Delo, was standing trial for publishing classified information, a criminal charge that carries a maximum three-year sentence.
In December 2011 Delo published stories by Delic that linked the Slovenian branch of the international neo-Nazi group Blood and Honour with the then opposition Slovenian Democratic Party. The investigation also exposed a Slovenian ministry of defence investigation into the presence of Blood and Honour members in the Slovene police and military. Prosecutors pursued the case against Delic based on charges made by the Slovenian intelligence agency (SOVA), after Delic had refused its requests to reveal the sources of her information.
“The prosecution claims that I have endangered the intelligence agency’s future work,” says Delic. “I find it peculiar that a journalist, with ordinary journalistic methods, would come to the same conclusion that the intelligence agency did. There is information out there that Blood and Honour possess arms. I was investigating whether they are active in the Slovenian army and the police—and they are,” she added.
Delic’s case has put a spotlight on the growing numbers of journalists in Europe and around the world being prosecuted under national security laws. She is among a number of European journalists—including EU-candidate countries Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey—charged with violating those countries’ anti-terrorism legislation, in keeping with the global upsurge in similar cases against journalists around the world.
More than half of the world’s 232 journalists jailed in 2012 were incarcerated for breaching laws aimed at punishing terrorists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The continuous expansion of anti-terrorism laws since 9/11 has upset the balance between security and civil rights, as more governments are abusing national security legislation to pressure and punish journalists, the CPJ says.
Gillian Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services of The Guardian, notes that since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 and the London bombings in 2005, governments have used national security and the fight against terrorism in ways that interfere with journalists’ rights.
“The Charlie Hebdo killings and the ease with which terrorists have managed to launch attacks in mainland Europe, give rise to calls for unlimited monitoring and use of modern surveillance technologies to snoop and access all citizens’ data, which directly challenges journalists’ rights to protect their confidential sources, for example,” she said.
“Many states recognize—both as a matter of law and ethics—journalists’ rights to protect their sources,” said Phillips, but warned that these “legal protections are not worth the paper they are written on if technical developments allow states to go behind those protections in secret.”
A January 2015 investigation by The Guardian of documents provided by Edward Snowden revealed that the bulk of electronic surveillance conducted in 2008 by UK intelligence service the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had involved the capture of mails of journalists working at top US and UK outlets, such as the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
“These sorts of attacks pose serious threats to journalists,” Phillips says. “There has to be a proper system of scrutiny, preferably through an independent judicial process—both before and after such data is accessed.”
Rights groups say such cases inside the EU set a bad example for candidate countries already struggling with media reform. According to Lydia Gall, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, leaders in Balkan countries are often motivated to comply with pressure from Brussels because of their countries’ candidate status. “They are eager to do the right thing—on paper at least,” Gall says.
Yet a spate of arrests of journalists for national security violations in Southeastern Europe has worried media observers. In Serbia, Milorad Bojovic and Jelena Spasic, journalists at the now defunct Nacionalni Gradjanski, still face criminal charges for publishing an article in 2010 which cited a confidential government report on Serbia’s defense capacities. The report, which had been circulated to parliament, revealed that Serbia had not at that time been prepared for war or natural disasters. The journalists accessed the information after a copy of the document was left in the parliament building. The prosecutor claimed the publication of information contained in the confidential document posed a threat to national security.
Yet Spasic says their article was justified: “something that is to the detriment of citizens cannot be secret. That is the line between freedom of information and national security,” she says. The reporters were indicted in 2011 but have not been taken to trial. Nor have the charges against them been officially dropped, leaving them in a legal limbo.
Similar cases have occurred in Macedonia. In 2013 journalist Zoran Bozinovski—who is often referred to as the Macedonian Julian Assange—was arrested and charged with foreign espionage and criminal association. Bozinovski is an outspoken critic of the Macedonian government, and has published investigative reports on the country’s intelligence agency.
His arrest coincided with another high-profile case involving Macedonian journalist Tomislav Kezarovski, who was sentenced to four-and-half-years in prison—later commuted to house arrest—for a 2008 article in which he had used information obtained in a leaked police report. However when Kezarovski was last month ordered to serve the remainder of his sentence in prison, the verdict sparked demonstrations in Skopje and outcry from international monitoring groups.
Among the worst offenders is Turkey—a candidate state despite its abysmal record on media freedom. The recent arrest of Fréderike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist based in Turkey, spotlighted the growing number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey, many for violating the country’s anti-terrorism legislation. According to the CPJ, Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison in the world—with the majority of cases involving reporters accused of being ‘spies’ and foreign agents for publishing articles criticising government policies.
Authorities raided Geerdink’s home on January 6, the day before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, drawing rebukes from human rights groups and media outlets around the world. The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also attended the solidarity march in Paris later that month.
Geerdink writes frequently about the country’s large Kurdish community, including the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an opposition group that is banned in Turkey as a terrorist organisation. Geerdink has since been indicted for spreading “terrorist propaganda” and if convicted faces up to five years in prison.
“The problem is that Turkey has a very broad anti-terrorism law,” Geerdink says. “The vague wording means anything can be interpreted as, for example, spreading propaganda or working for a terrorist organisation.”
Geerdink says she believes her status as an EU citizen gives her more protection than her Turkish colleagues, who lack sufficient legal protections.
Yet in the EU, state officials and domestic courts are more apt these days to side with national security concerns over freedom of expression rights. Moreover, calls from some European leaders to tighten anti-terrorism laws and increase surveillance powers since Charlie Hebdo have alarmed experts and rights groups, who warn that governments are already abusing national security laws to curtail media freedom.
Gall of Human Rights Watch warns that “we may now see a series of ‘patriot acts’ across Europe.”
Delic agrees: “With this horrible attack there are two parallel things going on: one, the rise of extremism, and two, the rise in governments in the west, democratic countries, clamping down on journalists,” she says, adding: “Of course, these new laws might give governments more power also to prosecute journalists.”