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Cyprus backed French move allowing journalist surveillance

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Lawmakers on Thursday excoriated the government for having gone along with a French initiative that would have let authorities to spy on journalists in new EU legislation coming down the pipe.

“Today we have documented that the government did consent to the surveillance of journalists with the use of spyware,” asserted Aristos Damianou, MP for Akel and chair of the House interior committee.

The committee discussed the European Media Freedom Act, the role of the Cyprus government in the shaping of an early draft of the legislation, as well as the current status of the bill – scheduled to go to the European Parliament in March.

The controversy concerns Article 4 (2C) of the legislation, which previously had contained a loophole permitting 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 following a political deal reached in mid-December of 2023 between the European Parliament and the European Council, the wording of the article was amended – removing the reference to national security as grounds for eavesdropping on journalists.

Media freedoms activists saw the national security proviso as too expansive, allowing for its arbitrary invocation by governments.

Although the national security reference was struck, the current revised text still allows for exceptions to eavesdropping on journalists – these relate to authorities’ investigations of a pre-determined list of serious crimes like terrorism and murder.

In parliament on Thursday, MPs grilled a foreign ministry official who conceded that Cyprus did back the French government that had pushed for the national security clause.

Permanent secretary at the foreign ministry Kyriacos Kouros, , said the Cypriot side had been ‘approached” by France to support the latter’s position – something which Cyprus did.

Commenting on this, Akel’s Damianou said this confirmed earlier reports about Nicosia’s conduct – which the government had denied in December when the story got a lot of traction.

Posting on social media later, Damianou said: “Media freedoms are civil liberties and therefore inviolable. We’ve hit rock bottom.”

Chiming in, the Media Ethics committee said Article 4 as a whole should be deleted from the EU legislation.

The Journalists Union agreed. In remarks to the media after the parliament committee session, the union’s head Giorgos Frangos said “unfortunately Cyprus was among the seven countries which adopted the French government’s proposal.

“The matter will go to the European Parliament plenum in March. Until then we will stay alert.”

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