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Attacks on the Press 2002: United Kingdom

Press freedom is generally respected in the United Kingdom, but CPJ was alarmed by a legal case in which Interbrew, a Belgium-based brewing group, and the British Financial Services Authority (FSA), a banking and investment watchdog agency, demanded that several U.K. media outlets turn over documents that had been leaked to them. The case threatened to erode the media's ability to protect sources, and to deter whistle-blowers from talking with the press.

Interbrew claimed that news reports published in November 2001 by Reuters news agency and four daily newspapers--The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Independent, and The Times--about an imminent bid by the Belgian company for South African Breweries (SAB) were based on false information and caused Interbrew's shares to fall and SAB's stock to jump. Interbrew suggested that the anonymous source of this allegedly false information may have illegally profited from the stock market reaction. Interbrew claimed that the documents had been doctored to make the financial markets believe that a bid was imminent. The company said it needed the originals to trace the damaging leak.

The news organizations refused to hand over the documents, citing their duty to protect sources, but on December 19, 2001, the High Court ruled that Interbrew's right to seek justice trumped the media's interest in protecting sources. On July 22, Interbrew applied to the High Court for seizure of The Guardian's assets. That threat receded four days later, when the brewing company handed the entire affair over to the FSA, which launched its own investigation. The FSA has statutory powers to demand compliance and, if the news organizations resist, could raid their offices to search for the documents.

By year's end, no penalties had been enforced against the media groups, and their lawyers were appealing the case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, to clarify the United Kingdom's law on the protection of journalistic sources.



July 22

The Guardian
The Financial Times
The Independent
The Times
Reuters



Interbrew, a Belgium-based brewing company, applied to the United Kingdom's High Court to seize the assets of the London-based newspaper The Guardian. The company also initiated legal proceedings against three other newspapers, The Financial Times, The Independent, and The Times, as well as Reuters news agency, to force the outlets to hand over information about documents leaked from Interbrew.

Interbrew claimed that these news organizations' November 2001 reports about an imminent bid for South African Breweries (SAB) were based on false information and caused the company's shares to fall and SAB's stock to jump. Interbrew suggested that the anonymous sources of this allegedly false information may have illegally profited from the stock market reaction. Interbrew alleged that the documents had been doctored to make the financial markets believe that a bid was imminent and said the company needed the original documents to trace the damaging leak.

The news organizations refused to hand over the documents, citing their duty to protect journalists' sources. On December 19, 2001, however, the High Court ruled that the public interest in protecting the source of the leak was outweighed by the public i©terest in letting Interbrew seek justice. Seven months of legal wrangling ensued, culminating in Interbrew's July 22 decision to apply to the High Court for seizure of The Guardian's assets. That threat receded four days later, when the brewing company handed the entire affair over to the U.K.'s Financial Services Authority (FSA). The FSA launched its own investigation into the affair.

The FSA has statutory powers to demand compliance and, if the news organizations resist, could raid their offices for the documents. By year's end, no penalties had been enforced against the media outlets, and their lawyers were appealing the case to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, to clarify the U.K.'s law on the protection of journalistic sources.

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