Wiretapping Reporters

Last week the Danish public was informed that police had been listening in on private telephone conversations made by a journalist from the newspaper “Jyllands-Posten”. It is the second largest news paper in the country and ironically quite close to the present rightist government.

The tapping happened after reporter Stig Mathiessen and his paper weeks ago told the police that rumour had it that a “death list” on Danish Jews is circulating in fundamentalist Muslim circles. Kill a Jew and get a 30 000 dollars reward. The reporter could not inform the police on the name of his source, but was able to mention a number of Jews on the list. Some of these are now under police protection.

Unable to make the reporter divulge the name the police started wiretapping the private phone of Mathiessen in order to get the wanted information. Tapes from this operation were played in a secret court session and on this background the D.A. demanded that the reporter handed over the name. He refused and appealed the case, which will be central to journalists right to protect their sources.

Protest is widespread. The International Federation of Journalists, IFJ, calls it an abuse of power and says, “it reflects the contempt that some senior officers have for the rights of journalists and media”. IFJ General Secretary, Aiden White, said last week: “Once again the authorities are using the media for ‘fishing’ expeditions for evidence and are violating fundamental rights in the process”.

In a joint letter Friday the largest newspapers and TV-stations in Denmark demanded an explanation from Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is also Minister of the Press. They argued that mere suspicion of wiretapping would make some sources dry out – and thus damage the freedom of expression and the free press.

Rasmussen’s answer doesn’t satisfy the Danish media. He just mentions the “serious character of the case” and that he can’t be part of an ongoing police investigation. Off course the Government is all for freedom of the press but the possibility of solving serious crimes has to be considered too, soHe also refused to open an investigation of the affair.

Oluf Jorgensen, press law specialist at The Danish School of Journalism, fears that the court ruling will lead to an increased use of wiretapping of journalists by the police. In the wake of 9/11 the Danish Government introduced a so-called Terror Package that increased the power of the police to investigate information the media may possess. Oluf Jorgensen tells the newspaper “Politiken” that he fears the new court ruling will weaken journalists right to protect their sources.

‘The War on Terror’ already had lots of casualties. Freedom of the press may soon be added to the list.

Steen Sohn is a free lance writer living in Aarhus, Denmark. He can be reached at stsohn@mail.djh.dk