The case. Somewhere in 2000, a water pipe bursts in an Amsterdam apartment building. The owner unfortunately is out, so the police is called. They open the apartment and conclude they should really also check on the neighbor. They open that apartment too and lo and behold what a coincidence: it is owned by a very bad and very wanted and very untouched criminal and how lucky, there is a loadsof weapons found. A journalist on the scene interviews a policeman who “wink wink, nudge nudge” tells him the water thingy was a hoax, which of course not only he publishes, but is also used by the defense to have the whole entry in the apartment earmarked illegal. The prosecution twists the journalists arm to tell them who the cop was, and of course he doesn’t fold; if revealed nobody would tell this guy anything ever again, and it would actually hurt the role journalism has in exposing wrongdoing.

Here it gets slowly interesting. Know that the right to not reveal sources is NOT layed out in the law in this country, but is confirmed in several court cases, ergo de facto law. The situation is of course much to the (understandable, but still un”law”ful) chagrin of the prosecution and they ask the court to have the journalist detained until he speaks up. I think in the US it would be filed under contempt to the court, here it is called “being taken hostage”. After 17 days of silence he is released and the court deems his story as a fantasy. The criminal was trailed.

The story would have ended here, if the journalist hadn’t taken matters to the highest European court possible (European court for Human Rights). A few days ago the verdict came out: Unlawful. The journalist was right on all accounts and him being thrown in jail was not only unlawful but also against basic human rights, yes Sir. Unfortunately for him, the legal fees he requested to be paid back are denied. Parliament kicks in and the Justice minister responds it is about time this whole source protection stuff should be put into a law, comparable with the law for doctors and lawyers.

So far so good eh? In the political debate, he makes an almost casual side note. It goes something like “of course we have to define [sic: in the law] what a journalist is, who is and who isn’t”. Aaaaah, and here my friends, I think all flags should go red. Not only is it impossible to define “journalist” in this era (am I one?), but should this artificial line be drawn, who would you go to if the chains had to be rattled? Politicians shouldn’t define who is a journalist, it is a case by case issue and a judge is, as has been proven many times, perfectly capable to assess if somebody, maybe even a simple blogger is an “acting” journalist and balance the power of publication against protecting criminals. Not ever has a criminal been saved from prosecution because he started a weblog and claimed to be a journalist. This is a very un-clever plan.

What do you think? And is source-protection embedded in the law in your country? Do journalists have a legal, as in based in the law, special status?

Added: Duh, I wrote earlier a bit about journalists being taken hostage by the government.