Fainting in Coyles An occasional letter from the
Heart of Euroville
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
How the European Union crushes dissent,
or the strange case of Hans-Martin Tillack
Final words on the Tillack episode - well unless anything new happens. (Some repetition from previous posts)
According to Article II-11 of the European Constitution “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected”.
Sounds good and solid doesn’t it? So how is it that on Friday the 19th of March this year Hans-Martin Tillack, the Brussels correspondent for Die Stern the German news weekly, found himself woken by police, his phones confiscated, his office raided and files sequestered and access to his lawyer denied?
This story goes back to 2002 when Tillack – the most active investigative journalist in Brussels – was able to obtain some documents from the EU’s anti fraud office OLAF. These documents were in reference to the Van Buitenen affair. (Van Buitenen was the Dutch auditor whose revelations lead to the collapse of the Santer Commission in 1999). Immediately the normally somnambulant OLAF went into overdrive. They launched an official internal investigation into the leaks and made statements in the press accusing an un-named journalist of bribing officials for information, what is more they announced that they had “prime facia” evidence to back up their claim. As Die Stern was at that time the only news source that had been reporting the issue it was pretty apparent who they were accusing, Hans-Martin Tillack. He and his magazine demanded that OLAF apologise or produce the evidence. This the fraud office refused to do.
Now we scroll forward to November last year. Finally after over 18 months OLAF issued a statement where they admitted they had no evidence, but despite that would be continuing the witch hunt into Tillack. At this point the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, made a report where he stated that he had told OLAF to apologise, but OLAF had refused. Indeed in internal OLAF emails it was found that they knew that the rumour was unsubstantiated. The ombudsman therefore criticized OLAF in, for Brussels very strong terms.
One would have thought that OLAF under its German boss, Franz-Hermann Bruener would act with dignity and withdraw. But only in November Tillack had published a very personal attack on Bruener, an attack that had been followed up by the Sunday Telegraph. Bruener was incensed. There was no way he was letting up now. He handed over his lack of evidence to the Belgian authorities and demanded that they act. OLAF is by its own rules unable to act. Its working methods are to collate information and hand them over to national authorities. In the case of Belgium, the evidence would be handed to the public prosecutors office, who then instruct the police. However the case of Belgium is very specific. In Belgium journalists have, by law to hand over all details of sources to the authorities. Recently, after strong criticism from the International Court of human rights the Belgian authorities have been passing a law that will protect journalists from these situations. Last week the Belgian parliamentary committee passed this law unanimously. Therefore OLAF had to act fast. So fast indeed that they neglected to have any substantive evidence. The level of farce that this whole affair has descended to is illustrated by two appearances on German television by Bruener last week. At the beginning of the week he informed his interviewer that OLAF had nothing to do with the arrest, two days later he was forced to admit that he had in fact sent the request to the Belgians.
If the anti fraud office knew that they were acting illegally, and had been criticized as such by the Ombudsman why on earth would they have done this. This is where we start to understand the strategy involved in the action. Bruener is coming up to the end of his term as Director General. He wants to keep his job. His nomination and retention is in the hands of the European institutions. If he can be seen to close down awkward questions raised against those institutions then he will have shored up support from those same institutions.
Brussels works by a conspiracy of silence. Recently the Chairman of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee was quoted as saying that Parliamentarians had a “duty to the idea of Europe, not just to their constituents”. It works the same way for the press corps. As Hans Martin himself has said, “the basic Brussels rule: "Don't ask, don't talk about fraud... even most of the journalists in Brussels think like that. The argument for sweeping dirt under the table goes something like this: talking about fraud harms the reputation of the European Institutions, which only furthers the cause of the eurosceptics. That's why the true believers of the European project prefer to close their eyes. They don't realise that it is precisely this attitude that allows the sleaze to grow and gives eurosceptics even more reasons to complain about the EU.”
The EU, OLAF and Bruener have already won. The purposed of the exercise has already been accomplished. The nub is that Tillack, was a meticulous German, and had all his files on over 50 investigative stories confiscated. All his contact details were in those files. There are at least 12 Commission sources that will be uncovered by this (possibly) illegal action. Those sources will be punished, and thus the job of a journalist in Brussels goes from hard to nigh on impossible. If the Commission can confiscate journalist's files without evidence of illegality who is ever going to talk to a journo?
This has to be understood in the light of some leaked documents from last year, where the internal disciplinary procedures of the Commission were laid bare. In the document it was apparent that one gets punished (hand slap - promoted sideways) for financial impropriety or sexual harassment. But to get fired you have to do something serious, paedophilia is one thing but the other is to leak documents to MEPs or the press. The ratchet of silence in Brussels just got one notch tighter.