A discussion of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the matter Sanoma vs. the Netherlands dated 31 March 2009
Street Races in Hoorn
On 31 March 2009 the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment in the case of Sanoma versus the Netherlands. The Sanoma weekly Autoweek had photographs of a street race of January 2002 in Hoorn in its possession. Before the journalists were allowed to take photographs, they had to guarantee that they would not disclose the participants’ identity. The police claimed the photographs in order to track down the suspects. The Dutch government was of the view that it was a race in public, so that the
people who were in the photographs could not count on these photographs not being disclosed. And as a result, the journalistic right of non-disclosure would not apply.
Journalistic Right of Non-Disclosure also Applicable to Photographs Made in Public?
The Court disagreed. An illegal street race is precisely organized at a secret spot, out of the public’s sight. The Court once again emphasized the vital importance of the press as a public watchdog, and the necessity not to disclose journalistic sources. The Court was also of the view that the requesting of the CD Rom by the police might have a chilling effect on the freedom of press. All this may be true, but the Court still ruled that in this case the police rightfully requested the CD Rom.
Court: The Importance of Tracking Down Outweighs Free Access to Information
Although initially the police only wanted to say that it was a matter of ‘life or death’, it appeared in Court that the police hoped to find suspects of a number of ram raids on the pictures. Apparently a number of inhabitants of Hoorn had tried to empty ATM machines with a shovel loader (by driving the shovel loader through the wall of the building concerned). During a ram raid on 1 February 2002 a weapon had also been used. According to the Court this was sufficient to have the importance of the tracking down outweigh the freedom of expression and the free access to information. Actually, it was touch and go; three out of the seven judges disagreed with the judgment. Their dissenting opinion is to be found at the bottom of the judgment.
Journalists Used as Investigation Tools?
Though it is understandable that the police does everything to catch these ram raiders, the question is whether hunting down criminals is not the police’s task and should not be left to journalists. Journalists who had to promise before taking the photographs that they would not disclose them. This verdict may result in a lessened credibility for journalists when they commit to keeping their sources secret.