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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Lawyer’s leaks pose media dilemma

NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian media were in a squeeze this week after police claimed they’d identified the lawyer suspected of leaking confidential information from ongoing investigations into last summer’s terrorist attacks. The media found themselves caught between the need to protect their sources as well as report the news, and that led to scant coverage when the lawyer’s identity was released.

Police believe Sigurd Klomsæt, who’s among the more than 170 attorneys representing various victims of the attacks, is the lawyer who they claim has leaked photos and confidential information about the terrorist investigation to local media. Police have asked the Oslo City Court to remove Klomsæt from the case, arguing the lawyer broke the law. Now police in the neighbouring municipality of Asker og Bærum are investigating the Oslo Police District’s claim.

Klomsæt, who represents one young male survivor of confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre on the island of Utøya, hasn’t wanted to comment in detail on the charges against him so far. “In this case, folks say what they like and I’ll comment later,” Klomsæt told news bureau NTB Tuesday evening. He claimed, though, that he had “not extracted the document in question.”

Caught in a trap
Police say they were able to identify Klomsæt after inserting special computer coding into the digital photographs included in a new batch of information distributed to all the lawyers (called bistandsadvokater) on February 3. Each batch sent to each lawyer was tagged with its own code that made the photos traceable. It was a trap of sorts, and the lawyer and media outlets apparently fell right into it.

Within hours of the police distribution of the fresh material, photos featuring new images of Breivik and his room in his mother’s Oslo home started popping up in local media including websites for newspapers Aftenposten, VG and Dagbladet and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Several of the media outlets arguably were careless with their use of the material, in the race to scoop their competition. They didn’t remove coding from the photos before publishing them, or take their own photos of the photos that would be untraceable. Police were therefore able to track the coding on photos culled from websites to the lawyer to which they’d been sent.

Most media outlets otherwise would have pounced on a story involving such juicy intrigue that’s part of the biggest criminal case in Norwegian history. While some websites picked up on the lawyer being identified, though, coverage was visibly muted. On Wednesday, newspapers including Aftenposten only allotted five paragraphs to the story, published as a small item at the bottom of a page with no byline.

That’s probably because some editors may feel a bit embarrassed over how the photos were handled, or that they appear to have been outsmarted by the police. The media also are directly involved in the story, and generally have a poor track record of reporting on themselves. Most importantly, they’ll argue, is that journalists and media bosses have a professional obligation to protect their sources. They would never have identified Klomsæt, if indeed he was source of their information. The police identification is likely uncomfortable at best.

Salt in the wound
There was quite a bit of online criticism over how the media covered, or failed to cover, the news on Tuesday about the lawyer’s identity, including from former Justice Minister Anne Holt, now an author of crime fiction. On Wednesday morning, prosecutors rubbed salt into the wound by suggesting that media outlets should be cited and punished for publishing confidential information, along with those caught leaking it. That brought immediate protests from local editors and press organizations. They maintain journalists must be able to do their jobs and use the information they obtain, calling that a critical part of the democratic process.

Other lawyers in the case also seemed both embarrassed that one of their own colleagues was identified as leaking information, and disturbed by the police tactics. Neither they nor the media liked getting caught red-handed. Editorial staffers have at the very least learned a tough lesson, and probably won’t automatically publish photos they’ve been sent if their origin is at all sensitive. This website, by the way, hasn’t published the photos of Breivik in question. They weren’t sent to us, we can’t afford to buy them from news bureaus and most readers already know what he looks like anyway.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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