It is difficult to understand why the European authorities have targeted journalists, media owners and their families as potential security threats which national governments would have the powers to spy on under certain conditions. Article 4(2) of the inappropriately titled European Media Freedom Act would allow state services to use spyware on media service providers “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.”
Why have other professionals, such as lawyers, civil servants, financial service providers not been named as possible targets of surveillance, given that the spyware can also be deployed in “serious crimes investigations”? Is it only journalists that may have access to information related to serious crimes investigations? Or is it that the EU respects client-lawyer confidentiality, but not the right of journalists to protect their sources? It is not only journalists and media owners that could pose a threat to national security, but so could politicians, businesspeople and accountants.
What makes this Article 4 even more difficult to understand was furore caused by the use of spyware in Greece – government using spyware to listen in on the conversations of an opposition politician – at the European Parliament. A special investigative committee was set up, with MEPs visiting Greece as well as Cyprus, where the spyware company was based. MEPs have not shown the same sensitivity now, perhaps because national security is cited as justification for the surveillance.
There was quite a strong reaction to news about the Act in Cyprus, particularly to information that the Christodoulides government was one of seven that supported it. Government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis, who did not deny Cyprus’ support for the Act, said it applied only in “extraordinary circumstances” and contained strong safeguards such as the need to secure a court order for the surveillance; and for the court order to be issued, strong evidence of a national security threat had to be applied.
Government assurances on matters of surveillance count for very little in Cyprus, where one journalist openly accused the Anastasiades government of hacking his computer and phone, removing files and monitoring all his communications because he was writing a series of books exposing the president. Few who read the account of his experience were left in much doubt that this happened, although the government denied any involvement. Other journalists have also made similar allegations.
In short, even if Act 4 includes safeguards, our state authorities cannot be trusted to comply with these provisions, as they have a record of resorting to surveillance of journalists and others. They will always deny it, as Kyp, the secret service which carries out these operations is accountable only to the president and acts on his orders. If it had to go to the court for authorisation, it could find the evidence of a threat to national security, real or fictitious.
In the last few days, apart from the journalists’ union, the Bar Association and the Media Ethics Committee have expressed opposition to Act 4, opposition that should be stepped up, because the last thing we need is for the state authorities to have the legal power to put journalists under surveillance.