Reporters Without Borders has appealed to the Swiss justice and defence ministers to drop complaints against three journalists who revealed the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe.
In letters to the federal councillors, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher and Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, it has pointed out that the journalists only fulfilled their duty to report on a case of public interest.
Zurich-based weekly SonntagsBlick on 8 January this year reproduced a fax from the Egyptian foreign minister to his embassy in London, referring to the existence of secret CIA detention centres in Kosovo, Macedonia, Ukraine, Rumania and Bulgaria.
The case produced an outcry in Switzerland and worldwide and the country's secret services were implicated in the leak of the confidential document. Romania and Bulgaria denied the allegations. The United States admitted the existence of flights chartered by the CIA over numerous European countries but not the existence of prisons.
A damning report from the Council of Europe condemned abuses committed by the US administration in its fight against terrorism and its recourse to torture, comparing the camps to one in Guantanamo Bay.
The Swiss authorities, fearing a deterioration in their diplomatic relations with the US, with whom they are in the process of negotiating a free-exchange agreement, have sought to defuse the crisis by opening two investigations, one criminal, one military, to track down who was behind the leak. The journalists on SonntagsBlick face prison sentences under the terms of both investigations.
Geneva, 8 February 2006
Dear Federal Councillor,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation for the defence of press freedom, is particularly concerned about the investigations that have been opened by military justice and the federal public ministry against the editor of SonntagsBlick, Christoph Grenacher and two of his journalists, Sandro Brotz and Beat Jost. They are accused of having published on 8 January 2006, a fax from the Egyptian foreign ministry to London revealing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe.
Under Article 293 of the Swiss criminal code, invoked by the military investigation, the journalists face a fine and up to five years in prison for “publication of secret official debates”. The confederation's public ministry accuses the journalists of having violated “the confidentiality of office”, making them liable to a fine or prison.
Can respect for military secrets in this case be applied to journalists, who are not auxiliaries of the state? Also, according to Article 320 of the criminal code, the violation of confidentiality of office only applies to members of an authority or an official. We do not understand therefore why the federal justice system has invoked this article against the SonntagsBlick journalists.
We understand that publication of secret official documents is embarrassing - even prejudicial - for the Swiss authorities, but they should not mistake their target by seeking to punish journalists who only doing their duty which is to inform public opinion.
Swiss journalists should be able to benefit from the right to protect their sources included in the criminal code in 1998 (Articles 27a 1, 2a, 2b). We understand that the investigations that have been opened should pinpoint the origin of the leak of the official document which the newspaper published, but the journalists cannot be held responsible for it.
Recent statements by Dick Marty, tasked by the Council of Europe to shed light on the existence of such places of detention, only confirms the public interest linked to the publication of this document. Let us not forget that allegations of inhuman or abusive treatment have been made in this case.
As guardians of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland owes it to itself to defend the principles contained therein, whatever the political circumstances of the moment.
We also support the request from the Media Freedom Representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Miklos Haraszti, calling on the Swiss authorities to amend its punitive laws over breaking of confidentiality so as to bring them into line with international and democratic standards that recognise the overriding public interest, or the public's absolute right to information, in a country under the rule of law.
Knowing you to be sensitive to press freedom, we appeal to you to intervene so that the complaints against the SonntagsBlick journalists are withdrawn and so that they avoid receiving prison sentences. An editor from the same newspaper was already sentenced on 7 June 2005, to a six-month suspended prison sentence for violating military secrets. We also call on you apply journalists' rights to protect their sources.
We trust you will give our request your careful consideration.
President Reporters Without Borders in Switzerland