Readers' Editor

Best practices on anonymous sources

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

Newspapers are a dynamic product where constant change in approach seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I have to press the pause button on my investigation into the charges of bias for a week in order to address one of the vexatious issues that has been haunting journalism for nearly two centuries: the role of anonymous sources.

We received a complaint from the Lawyers Collective (LC) regarding a couple of reports about the scrutiny of their organisation by the Ministry of Home Affairs (“ >Indira Jaising’s Lawyers Collective served Home Ministry notice”, November 20, 2015, and “ >Home Ministry inspects Indira Jaising’s firm”, January 27, 2016). Earlier, we got a similar complaint from Girindre Beeharry, India Country Director, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about the report “ >Gates Foundation on Centre’s radar”, February 9, 2016.

The LC argued that no notice under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010 (FCRA) has been issued to it either by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) or by any other Ministry. It said that it only received till date a standard questionnaire dated November 5, 2015; an intimation for inspection of accounts dated January 12, 2016; and observations/findings of the inspection team dated February 29, 2016. The LC also cited a reply from the MHA that read “… no show-cause notice as mentioned in your letter dated 05.12.2015 has been issued to Lawyers Collective by this Ministry till date and this Ministry categorically denies its involvement and responsibility to the news item published”.

Mr. Beeharry said that the article reflected a lack of understanding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s work. According to him, the foundation operates with the permission of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 (FEMA), and is registered under Indian law. While it makes all its grants worldwide from Seattle and not from local country offices, Mr. Beeharry asserted that all grantees need to be compliant with FCRA guidelines and the MHA has information on all their grants in India. He further stressed that the foundation files regulatory returns as required by the RBI under FEMA, complying with audit and disclosure procedures as mandated by the Indian and the U.S. governments, and pays taxes under Indian laws, and hence it is incorrect to say that it does not pay taxes in India.

There are some common threads that link the two stories: they are about the MHA’s assessment of NGOs that receive foreign money and its desire to scrutinise these organisations, the principal source is an unnamed official from the MHA, and they cast aspersions on the functioning of these organisations. The question of granting anonymity to sources has been one of my major concerns and I have raised this issue in four earlier columns: “ >When to grant anonymity” (July 4, 2015), “ >Means and ends matter” (September 22, 2014), “ >Sources: where to draw crucial lines” (August 12, 2013) and “ >When readers deserve more” (July 1, 2013). Reports based on anonymous sources have both legal and ethical implications.

Abuse of anonymity

I urge reporters covering sensitive ministries to read Norman Pearlstine’s reflections on this topic. In his book, Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War Over Anonymous Sources, the former Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc., explained the way the media was used by the George W. Bush administration to expose the identity of Valerie Plame as a Central Intelligence Agency operative following her husband’s report that contradicted the administration’s claim that Iraq was trying to buy weapons grade uranium from Niger. Mr. Pearlstine observed: “[Writing this book showed] the abuse of anonymity, the incestuous relations between reporters and sources, particularly in Washington, and the far too casual way journalists can imperil their own freedom and even the survival of their publications through the careless granting of promises or through the assumption of promises never explicitly made.” Unfortunately, if we substitute Washington with Delhi, Pearlstine’s stark warning seems closer home.

It is heartening to note that there was an internal notification that clearly asked reporters to avoid putting serious allegations in the mouth of unnamed officials and to carry out due diligence before this newspaper publishes such reports. I would also request reporters, gatekeepers, and section editors to read the editorial guidelines in an appendix in Mr. Pearlstine’s book and available online (http://www.normanpearlstine.com/guidelines.html) before taking a call to grant anonymity to any source.

The governing part dealing with confidential sources is: “In general, Confidential Source Status should be reserved for sources who are providing information that is important and in the public interest, and who, by doing so, are risking their lives, jobs, or reputations. Reporters should alert editors as early as possible during newsgathering that they are collecting sensitive information from sources who may seek or expect confidentiality. Reporters and editors should refrain from granting Confidential Source Status without the explicit approval, prior to publication, of the publication’s editor in chief… If the reporter, editor, and source cannot reach an understanding, the publication cannot publish the information. This procedure is undertaken for the protection of the source as much as the company, and it does not diminish the seriousness of our commitment to protect all our sources.” Anonymous sources cannot undermine the reputation of any individual or organisation.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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