Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland has asked UK Home Secretary Theresa May to explain the pressure that Downing Street had put on the Guardian newspaper over the Snowden case, warning of the potentially "chilling effect" on media freedom.
Last June whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, revealed that the US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data.
Europeans reacted angrily to the revelations, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American Web giants' reach and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US were about to launch transatlantic trade talks.
In the letter sent yesterday (21 August), Jagland, a Norwegian politician, laid out his concerns over two recent events in the United Kingdom – the detention by police at the Heathrow airport of David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian’s headquarters, which he said was “apparently under instructions of government officials”.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian newspaper which spearheaded revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, recently revealed that the British authorities forced his newspaper to destroy material leaked by the former CIA employee, whose revelations uncovered a massive American eavesdropping programme that shocked the world and triggered a swathe of angry responses from Europe.
“These measures, if confirmed, may have a potentially chilling effect on journalists’ freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European convention of Human Rights”, Jagland wrote.
Article 10 of the convention lays out the right to freedom of expression but also refers to restrictions in the interest of national security and public safety and the prevention of disclosure of information received in confidence.
Jagland asked May to “provide information on these reports and comments on the compatibility of the measures taken with the UK’s obligations under the Convention”.
Viviane Reding, the European Commission vice president responsible for justice and fundamental rights, reacted on Tweeter to the Council of Europe's announcement, despite earlier statements by spokespeople from the EU executive saying Brussels could not comment on the application of national security legislation.
“I fully share Mr. Jagland’s concerns,” Reding wrote on Twitter.
But the Commission denied suggestions that Reding’s tweet could be interpreted as a request of information to the UK authorities. Asked by EurActiv to comment, Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said fundamental human rights issues were a responsibility for the Council of Europe, not the European Commission.
“The tweet of Mrs Reding confirms that this is a legal responsibility of the Council of Europe,” Bailly said.
Sophie In t'Veld (ALDE, Netherlands), Vice-President of Parliament's Justice, Home Affairs and Civil Liberties Committee, reacted to recent revelations that The Guardian newspaper was ordered by the Prime Minister to destroy secret data it possessed on a hard drive as well as the lengthy interrogations conducted on the partner of the journalist involved in revealing the US spying scandal.
"It is essential that the freedom of the press is upheld and that the media are free to protect their sources and the information obtained. The public has a right to know when our governments are stepping out of line. Only a free press can guarantee this."
"It is highly questionable that the Guardian has had to destroy its hard disk and that Mr Miranda should have been held on suspicion of terrorism for hours."
"Europe cannot credibly promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the world, if it violates those principles at home."
"Just as with extraordinary rendition some years ago, Governments cannot be given a carte blanche to do whatever they like in the name of national security. Press freedom and individual liberty cannot be sacrificed in a genuine democracy. They are the very pillars on which our society is built."
Renate Weber ( Romania), ALDE coordinator on the Civil Liberties committee and rapporteur on press freedom in the EU, has written to the chairman of the committee expressing her concerns at the unprecedented intrusion on press freedom, unlawful detention and questioning of an innocent man and abuse of UK anti-terrorist legislation.
"I believe that we in the committee in charge of how fundamental rights of the EU are observed within the Member States, should ask explanations from the Council and the Commission."