(CN) – France must pay five journalists roughly $55,000 for improper searches and seizures during an investigation into cycle-racing doping, the European Court of Human Rights ruled.
“The protection of journalistic sources was one of the cornerstones of freedom of the press,” the court said in a statement. “Without such protection, sources might be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press might be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information might be adversely affected.”
While France was investigating allegations of doping in the Cofidis cycle racing team in January 2004, the weekly magazine Le Point published an article featuring passages from telephone conversations that the drugs squad had tapped and transcribed.
Christophe Labbe, Jean-Michel Decugis and Olivia Recasens had authored that article, as well as another that appeared the same month and divulged a list of illicit substances found in the search at the home of a former cyclist.
The Nanterre prosecutor’s office asked the National Police Inspectorate to probe the leaks on Feb. 4, 2004.
As L’Equipe, a daily sports newspaper, prepared to cover developments in the case months later, Cofidis filed an urgent application to enjoin publication the article.
Undeterred, L’Equipe printed a series of articles until the cycling team lodged a criminal complaint.
The National Police Inspectorate subsequently joined the Cofidis suit and ordered the search of the L’Equipe and Le Point offices to uncover leaked documents on Jan. 10, 2005.
The next year, two L’Equipe reporters, Damien Ressiot and Dominique Issartel, sought to nullify and seal the search materials.
The Versailles Court of Appeal nullified the tapping of newspaper switchboards and the phone lines of certain journalists, finding these measures unnecessary at that point of the investigation. But the court declared the seizures legitimate.
The journalists were eventually acquitted.
On March 27, 2007, they lodged their complaint at the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled in their favor Thursday, finding that the government failed to show that it struck a fair balance between the various interests involved.
“Even if the reasons given were relevant, the court considered that they did not suffice to justify the searches and seizures carried out,” the court said in a statement. “The means used were not reasonably proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued having regard to the interest of a democratic society in ensuring and maintaining the freedom of the press. There had therefore been a violation of Article 10.”
Article 10 governs freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The full judgment is only available in French.