The government on Tuesday sought to downplay the notion that it supports a clause in an EU bill currently under discussion that would allow European governments to spy on the communications of journalists.

Government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis was responding to an article run by Phileleftheros, reporting that Nicosia backs the contentious Article 4 in the European Media Freedom Act. The daily spoke to a person on Cyprus’ Permanent Representation to the EU who confirmed this.

Article 4 contains a loophole allowing for the use of spyware on media service providers, their employees or family members where “the deployment is justified, on a case-by-case basis, on grounds of national security and is in compliance with Article 52(1) of the Charter and other Union law or the deployment occurs in serious crimes investigations.”

But Letymbiotis asserted that the EU legislation under discussion seeks to bolster media freedoms and plurality.

The exemption to a prohibition on monitoring journalists’ communications, he said, would apply only in “extraordinary circumstances.”

And the proposed legislation includes safeguards, such as authorities being required to secure a court order before surveilling journalists.

The spokesman added that authorities would need to gather strong evidence that someone constitutes a threat to national security, or is linked to terrorist acts, for the clause in question to kick in.

However, investigative journalists tracking the issue say that under the guise of promoting media plurality, with this clause the EU regulation in fact undercuts the protection of journalistic sources.

In an expose published also on Tuesday, the Disclose NGO said it had obtained documents showing that seven countries – among them Cyprus – “actively advocate for authorising surveillance of journalists in the name of ‘national security’.”

The media outlet said that 15 months of investigations between the EU Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission could lead to a final text by this coming Friday.

The regulation’s inception dates back to September 2022 when it was introduced by the European Commission. According to Disclose, in June this year 25 out of 27 EU member states adopted a new version of the bill at the Council of the European Union.

“While the text forbids forcing journalists to reveal their sources, conducting searches on them, or spying on their electronic devices, it expands the leeway for intelligence services: spyware could be deployed in investigations related to a list of 22 additional offences punishable by three to five years of imprisonment.

“These offenses include sabotage, counterfeiting, corruption, or infringement of private property. Journalists working on these subjects and having relationships with sources targeted by such investigations could therefore be subjected to police surveillance.”

The giveaway, Disclose said, concerns the last sentence in the Council’s revised text: “This Article is without prejudice to the Member States’ responsibility for safeguarding national security.”

Christophe Bigot, a specialist in press law in France, told Disclose that if this wording stands “any national security reason could be enough to pursue or monitor a journalist.”

In response, in October 2023 the European Parliament adopted its own alternative version of Article 4, where the communications of journalists can only be intercepted or their phones infected with spyware if specific conditions are met.

“Intrusion should not result in accessing journalistic sources; it must be justified on a ‘case-by-case’ basis in investigations into serious crimes such as terrorism, rape, or arms trafficking, and should not be related to the professional activities of the media. Additionally, an ‘independent judicial authority’ must give authorisation and perform ‘regular oversight’ afterward.”

But according to Disclose, leaked minutes of a meeting of the EU Council on November 22 of this year show that the Italian government considers maintaining the paragraph on national security as a “red line,” while Cyprus, France and Finland stated they are “not very flexible” on the issue. Sweden, Malta and Greece claimed to be on the same line, “with a few nuances.”

As to the wheeler-dealing, Disclose said that although these seven countries represent just 34 per cent of the European population, they can still block any compromise by allying with Hungary, which rejects the entire text.

“For the law to be adopted, the supporting states must represent 65 per cent of the population. Hence, the majority of other governments have adopted the tough French-Italian line to salvage the text.”