In Germany, the Federal Intelligence Agency had been spying on
journalists and has placed spies in newsrooms to identify sources.
In the Netherlands, the government monitored telephones at De Telegraaf
in an attempt to determine the sources for a story, then arrested and
jailed journalists when the surveillance failed to identify the sources.
In Latvia, the Financial Police wiretapped the telephones of a television reporter and then leaked the tapes to the media.
Confidential sources are the lifeblood of many reporters’ work. But as
these and other cases show, surveillance in the name of security is
undermining this essential right in many countries.
Legal Protection of Sources
There is strong international recognition of the importance of the need
for journalists to protect their confidential sources of information.
The UN Special Representative on Freedom of Expression has described
the protection of sources as “primary importance for journalists”
while the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it is “one of
the basic conditions for press freedom”. It has also been recognized by
numerous other international governmental organizations including the
Organisation of American States (OAS), the Organisation for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the African
Union as a necessary requirement for free press.
The right is also widely recognized on the national level. Over 80
countries around the world have adopted legislation on protection of
sources while a handful even specifically include it in their
constitutions. The courts in many other countries have found the right
in their protections on free speech.
In spite of the strong legal protections available in both national and
international laws, governments have been increasing their surveillance
of journalists as a means to identify their sources, especially
following the 9/11 attacks. There has been a weakening of the
enforcement of both the sources legislation and the existing wiretap
In Germany, an extensive parliamentary report released in 2006 found
that the Federal Intelligence Agency (the BND) had been illegally
spying on journalists, including placing spies in newsrooms for over a
decade to identify sources.
In the Netherlands, which has no protection of sources legislation, the
government monitored the telephones of journalists from the newspaper
De Telegraaf who had revealed that a criminal kingpin was obtaining
confidential information while still in jail. The tap was approved by
an appeals court in May 2006. After the tap was unsuccessful in
identifying the source, the police arrested the journalists and
imprisoned them for a day to determine their sources.
In Latvia, the Financial Police wiretapped the telephones of a
television reporter Ilze Jaunalksne and then leaked the tapes to the
media. The judge who authorized the taps has been removed and charges
have been filed against the police officers. The journalist was
awarded €42,000 in damages in February 2007.
In other countries, there are proposals to adopt laws to weaken limits
on wiretapping. The newly elected Conservative government in Sweden
announced legislation in 2007 to allow the National Defence Radio
Establishment to monitor all international calls and communications.
Even the legal head of the intelligence service called it “completely
foreign to our form of government". The government claims that it only
legalizes what the Defense Ministry has been doing for decades.
Building in wiretapping
In 1994, the US adopted the Communications Assistance for Law
Enforcement Act (CALEA), which required that all telephone equipment
manufacturers selling phone equipment build in wiretapping
capabilities. Following this, the US government began a campaign of
pressuring national governments and international organizations such as
the G-8, the International Telecommunications Union and the Council of
Europe to promote surveillance either through setting technical
standards or enacting legislation to promote surveillance. One success
was the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Treaty.
This surveillance standard is now a de facto world standard, sold in
all telecommunications equipment and it is now being extended to the
Internet and other communications technologies. The legal efforts have
also been successful. Many nations including the UK and South Africa
have now adopted laws similar to CALEA and Zimbabwe and Indonesia are
considering doing the same.
The new surveillance capabilities make it easier for anyone to
intercept communications. In Greece, it was discovered in 2006 that
unknown persons had broken the security of cell phone operator Vodafone
and used the built-in surveillance capabilities of the Ericsson
equipment to tap the communications of over 100 prominent people
including Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and several journalists. In
Italy, the transcripts of widespread illegal taps and surveillance of
journalists, sports figures and politicians were leaked to the press in
The new digital age that makes it easier to communicate also makes it
easier to track who is communicating. These digital records can include
detailed records on calling information, including the location of
mobile phone users when calls are made, records of emails sent and
received and web sites visited. Search engine company Google retains
records of all searches indefinitely, although they recently promised
to reduce the identifiable information to two years.
These records can be very sensitive and reveal both journalists’
sources and their current and future research projects. In China,
American Internet company Yahoo! revealed the email and user
information of journalist Shi Tao to the Chinese government which
resulted in his imprisonment for a ten year sentence. In the US, a
court of appeals ruled in 2006 that the New York Times could not
protect its telephone records in an investigation on who leaked
information to it about an anti-terrorism investigation. In the UK,
police in Suffolk obtained the phone records of a journalist from the
East Anglian Evening Star when he telephoned the police to inquiry
about a "cold case" to discover the source of his information.
This problem is not just limited to governments obtaining information.
In the US, private investigators working for technology company
Hewlett-Packard illegally obtained the telephone records of several
journalists following stories about HP board meetings. In Finland, the
former CEO and other employees of telecommunications company Sonera and
several government officials were convicted in 2005 of illegally
obtaining the phone records of two journalists from Helsingin Sanomat
and employees of the Sonera to discover who was the source of a leak.
The ease of access to information about journalists and their
activities is compounded by the adoption of data retention laws that
require telecommunications providers to automatically collect and
retain all information on all users' activities. This information
includes details about emails sent and received (or at least the
information on the sender and recipients, subject, the names of
attachments and the size of the message), web sites visited, and
instant messages. Mobile telephone companies are required to collect
information on calls and messages sent and received including the
location of the persons when they were using their system. The length
of the retention can last up to five years.
In 2005, the European Union adopted a directive on data retention
requiring that all EU countries adopt laws on data retention to hold
information for between 6 months and 2 years. Some countries such as
Poland are demanding the right to hold the information for up to 15
years. The Directive goes into effect in September 2007 and by March
2009 all EU countries must have capacity to retain the data on Internet
access, telephony and e-mail. It is now being challenged in court in
Ireland. In the US, there is no current law on data retention.
President Bush personally pressured the EU to adopt the Directive. A
bill was recently introduced but now that the Congress is controlled by
the Democrats, it is less likely to be approved.
Due to technological advances, it is becoming increasingly more
difficult to ensure that the identity of sources is being protected.
Lawmakers need to resist efforts to track all persons in the name of
the war on terror and to ensure that these advances do not undermine
legal protections of journalists. In the meanwhile, journalists and
their sources are going to need to take greater care when meeting and
communicating to limit the possibility of being technologically
David Banisar is the Director of the Freedom of Information Project at
Privacy International, a UK based human rights group and a Visiting
Research Fellow at the Department of Law, University of Leeds.