Watchdog to probe gag on Commission staff

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Series Details Vol.7, No.3, 18.1.01, p3
Publication Date 18/01/2001
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Date: 18/01/01

By John Shelley

THE EU citizen's watchdog is to investigate whether the European Commission is denying its officials the right of free speech in the wake of its treatment of whistle-blower Paul van Buitenen.

European Ombudsman Jacob Söderman is launching an inquiry into whether the Union executive's staffing policy violates safeguards on the freedom of expression enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights agreed at the Nice summit last year.

The move comes at the end of an investigation into whether van Buitenen was mistreated by the Commission after he leaked internal EU papers to Green MEPs - one of the key events that led to the downfall of the Santer Commission.

Söderman cleared the Commission of any legal wrong-doing on a number of counts, including its efforts to prevent van Buitenen from publishing a book about his role in Jacques Santer's downfall. But while the Ombudsman says the institution did not break any rules, he condemns an EU policy requiring staff to seek permission before publishing anything that deals with their work.

"Officials should be able to write a book or article without having the administration warning them about the consequences," Söderman told European Voice. "Of course, officials have to be loyal to their employer but they have the right to discuss their work without interference."

The complaint to the Ombudsman, submitted not by van Buitenen himself but a Swedish citizen, argued that the Commission had acted improperly by disciplining the audit official for what amounted to a public service and by threatening him over his book.

But Söderman has concluded that by handing documents to outside bodies, van Buitenen violated staff regulations and so the Commission was within its rights to discipline him. He says the EU executive did not breach the rules when it "reminded" van Buitenen of the legal implications of publishing his book.

However, says Söderman, this does not address the question of whether the regulations are justified. "If there had been modern rules on whistle-blowing in the first place he would not have faced disciplinary procedures," he said.

Commission Vice-president Neil Kinnock has proposed new regulations covering this area in his current internal reform plans, but Söderman says he has not touched on rules that prevent staff from publishing outside the Commission without permission, or even conducting media interviews without the go-ahead of their superiors. Soderman argues these prohibitions are too restrictive.

In the freedom-of-expression inquiry, set to kick off this spring, Söderman will press the Commission to relax the rules and clarify where the line is drawn between the legitimate rights of free speech and the duty and responsibilities of officials.

The EU citizen's watchdog is to investigate whether the European Commission is denying its officials the right of free speech in the wake of its treatment of whistleblower Paul van Buitenen.

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