Journalists' groups in Brussels Thursday criticized the European Commission for suggesting that reporters may provide cover for potential spies in search of sensitive and classified information about the European Union.
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"This sort of loose talk ends up smearing everyone working in journalism by casting a cloud of suspicion over them," said Aidan White, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists.
"Security concerns are one thing, but this sort of comment puts journalists at risk and makes their job of scrutinizing public officials and the work of the commission more difficult," said White, whose organization represents more than 260,000 journalists in 30 countries.
Lorenzo Consoli of the International Press Association, which represents 500 journalists accredited to the EU institutions, said journalists had a duty to "ask searching questions and get access to documents some politicians and officials would prefer for their own vested interests to keep out of sight."
The criticisms followed a report in the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which quoted a confidential letter sent by the director of the commission's security services to its head of human resources.
The leaked memo warned that "the threat of espionage is increasing day by day".
"A number of countries, information seekers, lobbyists, journalists, private agencies and other third parties are continuing to seek sensitive and classified information," the memo said.
Commission officials have since strongly denied targeting journalists in particular.
"We are not only pointing the finger at journalists. It could be the pretty trainee with the long legs and the blonde hair," a commission spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Brussels-based journalists have unprecedented access
Journalists have unprecedented access to info at the EU
On Thursday, chief commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said the memo was not directed at journalists as such, but at spies who might pose as journalists. He also noted that the current executive headed by Jose Manuel Barroso has given Brussels-based journalists unprecedented access to information.
"This commission has lifted decades-old restrictions on officials contacting the media," Laitenberger said.
The European Commission acts as the executive arm of the European Union and is responsible for its general day-to-day running.
Lobbyists are particularly interested in its activities since it also proposes legislation that directly affects private businesses, governments or local authorities.