Spying on journalists is a dangerous idea

European Union member states want to authorize spying on journalists and their sources. It sounds unbelievable, but do you remember the Pegasus affair?

Journalists worldwide are monitored using software that allows infecting mobile phones, eavesdropping on phone conversations, and reading messages and e-mails. The secret services and the police thus monitored the telephone conversations and digital communication of hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, politicians, and even presidents of states.

A group of investigative journalists from the German public services WDR and NDR, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Die Zeit, along with the organizations Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, discovered that the secret services and the police used software purchased from the Israeli company NSO to tap the phones of more than 180 journalists, especially in Hungary. Greece, Spain, France, Belgium, and Azerbaijan. Among the journalists spied on was the editor-in-chief of the British FT, reporters from the French Le Monde, a CNN reporter… The scandal was enormous.

Presenting the idea of the European Act oof Media Freedom, EC Vice President Vera Jurova emphasized that the Act on Freedom of the Media includes solid protective measures against the use of spyware against the media, journalists, and their families.

The European Federation of Journalists welcomed the idea of the European Act on Freedom of the Media. Still, we requested the amendments, among other things, an additional improvement regarding the protection of journalists’ sources and the installation of spyware by international standards so that the law would ensure the safety of journalists from all forms of surveillance that threaten journalistic protection sources.

But the EU member states decided to go in the opposite direction. France requested an exception to the general ban on deploying spyware against journalists, demanding that provisions on the adequate protection of journalistic sources “do not call into question the responsibility of member states to safeguard national security”.

The EU Council accepted the idea of weakening the EMFA. In 2023, in Europe, we are faced with the fact that the EU Governments agree that spying on journalists and their sources should be approved on the vague grounds of “national security”.

Of course, the European Federation of Journalists strongly rejects the EU Council’s position on the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA). It condemns the attack on media freedom, arguing that such legislation would further endanger journalists and their sources because such an exception would nullify the original idea of protecting journalists from spying. Who will determine what is a justifiable reason for spying for national security?

I want to remind you that after discovering the Pegaz affair in January 2022, an investigation was conducted in Hungary. The Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information concluded that all cases they investigated, including those in which journalists were eavesdropped, were met all legal criteria for using spyware. The spyware was used to protect national security. It was not explained why those journalists posed a threat to national security.

That is exactly why it is necessary to adopt a provision that will be imperative for member states to protect journalists and their sources from spying.

The European Federation of Journalists has joined its affiliates and other civil society organizations in calling on Member States to review their current position and take steps to meaningfully protect journalists and their fundamental rights and ensure that the Act protects journalists and their fundamental rights by:

  • eliminating the exception for “national security.”
  • limiting the list of criminal offences that allow repressive measures against journalists and journalistic sources and prohibit the installation of spyware
  • including strong legal protective measures to protect and respect free and independent journalistic work.

Anything else would take us to horrible past times, far from the free democratic world to which Europe wants to belong. A world where journalism is truly a public good and those who make decisions have the courage and intelligence to provide a framework in which journalists will work freely and independently. Today, we are facing the European Parliament in the hope that it will have the courage to return the European Act on Freedom of the Media to the direction it was originally intended, which leads to strengthening the protection of journalistic freedoms, creating a solid framework for the independent, professional work of journalists.

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