Strasbourg: Article 10 rights of journalists who intercepted Italian police communications not violated



The article 10 right to freedom of expression of three journalists who intercepted radio communications between the carabinieri, one of Italy’s armed forces, in order to arrive quickly at crime scenes and report on them were not violated, the European Court of Human Rights has unanimously ruled.

Stressing the notion of responsible journalism and noting that the decisions of the domestic courts had been duly reasoned and had focused primarily on the need to protect national security and prevent crime and disorder, the court found in particular that the courts had made an appropriate distinction between, on the one hand, the duty of the three journalists to comply with domestic law, which prohibited in general terms the interception by any persons of communications not addressed to them, including those of the law-enforcement agencies, and on the other hand, the pursuit of their journalistic activities, which had not been restricted per se.

The court also noted that the penalties ordered by the domestic courts, consisting in the seizure of the radio equipment and the imposition of custodial sentences, had not been disproportionate, as the sentences of the three journalists had been suspended and the authorities had not prohibited them from bringing news items to the public’s attention.

The applicants, C. Brambilla, D. De Salvo and F. Alfano, are Italian nationals who were born in 1954, 1976 and 1971 respectively and live in Lecco in Italy.

Mr Brambilla is the director of a local online newspaper in the province of Lecco, while Mr De Salvo and Mr Alfano are journalists working for the newspaper. On 1 August 2002, using radio equipment to intercept the frequencies used by the police and the carabinieri, the three journalists gained access to a conversation during which the Merate carabinieri operations centre decided to send a patrol to a location where weapons were being stored illegally. Mr De Salvo and Mr Alfano went to the scene immediately.

The carabinieri decided to search their vehicle and found two pieces of equipment capable of intercepting radio communications between law-enforcement officers. The carabinieri later went to the offices of the two journalists and seized two further items of fixed equipment which were tuned to the frequencies used by the carabinieri.

The court noted that the journalists had not been prohibited from bringing the news items to the public’s attention, as their conviction had been based solely on the possession and use of radio equipment intercepting communications between law-enforcement officers, which were confidential under domestic law, in order to access information rapidly.

The court observed that the decisions of the domestic courts finding that communications between law-enforcement officers were confidential and that the journalists’ actions were therefore to be classified as criminal conduct, had been duly reasoned and had emphasised the need to protect national security and prevent crime and disorder.

The court reiterated that the notion of responsible journalism required that, where journalists acted to the detriment of the duty to abide by ordinary criminal law, they had to be aware that they risked being subjected to legal sanctions, including those of a criminal character.

It noted in the present case that the persons concerned, in seeking to obtain information for publication in a local newspaper, had acted in a manner that, according to domestic law and the consistent interpretation of the court of Cassation, contravened criminal law, which prohibited in general terms the interception by any persons of conversations not addressed to them, including conversations between law-enforcement officers. Furthermore, the journalists’ actions had comprised techniques which they used routinely in the course of their journalistic activity.

The court observed that the penalties imposed on the applicants had consisted in the seizure of their radio equipment and in custodial sentences of one year and three months in the case of the first two journalists and six months in the case of the third, but that their sentences had been suspended. It therefore considered that the penalties had not been disproportionate and that the courts had made an appropriate distinction between the applicants’ duty to comply with domestic law and their pursuit of their journalistic activity, which had not been otherwise restricted.

Accordingly, the court held that there had been no violation of article 10 of the Convention.

The judgment is available only in French: AFFAIRE BRAMBILLA ET AUTRES c. ITALIE.