Opinion: Eavesdropping

POSTED: 09/7/11 1:35 PM

Here is an interesting case that played out in a courtroom in den Bosch in the Netherlands. The public prosecutor demanded a €2,500 ($3,600) fine against TV-station BNN that had eavesdropped in a rather roundabout way on RTL-Boulevard TV-host Albert Verlinde.
For its program VOC, the TV-station gave Verlinde a bogus award that contained hidden electronic eavesdropping equipment. It recorded 2.5 hours of private conversations, among others with Verlinde’s parents.
The prosecutor made his case by saying that the TV-station’s action was not inspired by the desire to reveal a serious wrong. On the contrary, VOC-host Filemon Wesselink told police that Verlinde deserved a taste of his own medicine. The prosecutor labeled the action as the self-administration of justice at the level of the British tabloid News of the World. He said that the TV-station probably undertook the action to generate publicity.
Hmm, we wonder. For one, the TV-station obviously broke the code of conduct as defined by the International federation of Journalists in 1954. Article 4 of that code states: The journalist shall use only fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents.
Giving somebody a fake award stuffed with eavesdropping equipment is of course hardly a fair method to obtain whatever information the TV-station thought it was going to get out of this Pietje Bell-exercise.
But here comes the public prosecutor saying that the TV-station’s action was not inspired by a desire to reveal a serious wrong.
That sounds a bit like opening the backdoor for unfair practices. For instance, could we manipulate MP Frans Richardson into receiving one of those Crystal Pineapple awards and stuff it with eavesdropping equipment and then justify this by arguing that our intention is to “reveal a serious wrong?”
Tempting as this may be, we strongly oppose such practices, even though at times this seems to be the only way to get a meaningful comment out of a local politician.
Fortunately there are ways to read the words politicians utter. When the faction leader of the CDA, Willem Aantjes found himself at the center of a controversy in November 1978 over accusations that he had been a member of the German Waffen-SS during the Second World War, a journalist asked Prime Minister van Agt if Aantjes still had his support.
“I support him as a human being,” Van Agt said, and the message was clear to one and all. The next day Aantjes stepped down.
We see the same thing happening in St. Maarten. The most recent example is the “no comment” by MP Frans Richardson on our report that he will leave the National Alliance to become an independent member of parliament. In December, several politicians evaded answering questions about the position of Public Health Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus.
The answers ranged from the party will have to decide about this and the party-leader will have to take a decision to this is a matter for the Democratic Party – and so on.
The meaning of all these evasive answers was also clear for the trained reader: nobody came out to say that Buncamper-Molanus ought to step down. But more important is what the politicians did not say, namely, that they supported her, and that she ought to remain on her post.
It is childishly easy to go online to a so-called spy shop and find eavesdropping equipment for a palatable price. The thing is, all these instruments are worthless for journalists because using them would violate the international code of conduct.
Still, that prosecutor in Den Bosch has us wondering: would it be okay to use such equipment if the eavesdropping exercise resulted in revelations about a serious wrong?

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