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Press groups upset over EU commission’s spying ‘smear’

Brussels — European press groups on Thursday condemned the European Commission for "smearing" all journalists by identifying them as potential spies in an internal security letter.

"This sort of loose talk ends up smearing everyone working in journalism by casting a cloud of suspicion over them," said European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) General Secretary Aidan White. "Security concerns are one thing but this sort of comment puts journalists at risk and makes their job of scrutinizing public officials and the work of the commission more difficult."

"We condemn this generalization," said Lorenzo Consoli, president of the IPA, which represents the international press in Brussels.

On Wednesday, following a press leak, the commission admitted that there was an internal security note to alert staff to the spying threat.

"A number of countries’ information seekers, lobbyists, journalists, private agencies and other third parties are continuing to seek sensitive and classified information from the commission," the letter warned.

The warning spoke of "repeated attempts to compromise commission information using intelligence officers or persons directly linked to intelligence services who adopt a range of covers in order to conceal the aggressive nature of their information-gathering."

It’s not the first time Brussels journalists have taken exception to the commission’s attitude to media information-gathering.

Hans-Martin Tillack, a former correspondent for the German Stern magazine in Brussels, was arrested in March 2004 after publishing a book on dysfunctional European institutions and writing numerous articles about fraud that implicated senior officials.

Belgian police raided his home and picked him up at the request of the commission’s anti-fraud squad, which suspected he had received confidential documents in return for cash.

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg condemned Belgium for failing to uphold Tillack’s rights.

Last month, a Belgian court closed the corruption case against him, citing insufficient evidence.

Now the EFJ is calling on the commission to investigate how its officials came to make the false accusation of bribery against Tillack and to carry out an independent inquiry into the case "that for years cast a shadow over relations between Brussels journalists and the commission."

"Now the suggestion is that every journalist is a potential spy; it’s the worst kind of scaremongering," said White.

Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger defended the security measures, while adding that access for journalists to EU officials had been greatly increased in recent years.

"The issue is not journalists, the issue is officials’ obligations in regard to their professional obligations," he said. "This commission has issued new guidelines allowing officials to talk to the media if there is no breach of their (other) obligations."