Sources are sacrosanct

What can one make of the contradictory claims by the Attorney General of India? On March 6, he told the Supreme Court that “secret” documents published by The Hindu on the purchase of 36 Rafale jets were “stolen” from the Ministry of Defence, probably by former employees. On March 8, he informed the news agency PTI that what he meant in his submission before the Supreme Court was that the petitioners in the application had used “photocopies of the original” papers, deemed secret by the government. While the senior-most legal officer of the country was busy deciding whether the documents were stolen or photocopied, people on social media were attacking journalists for frequently citing unnamed sources in their reports.

Ethical framework

It is important for citizens to understand the legal and ethical framework that guides the relationship between a source and a journalist. The European Court of Human Rights, in Goodwin v. the United Kingdom, ruled: “Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom… Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined, and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information be adversely affected… An order of source disclosure ... cannot be compatible with Article 10 of the Convention unless it is justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest.”

Norman Pearlstine’s Off the Record is a fine book that examines the complex relationship between sources and journalists. Journalists take care not to confuse a whistle-blower with a source. There are many unreasonable demands before investigative journalists. A sharp observation by James Risen, senior national security correspondent at The Intercept and director of First Look Media’s press freedom defence fund, explains the challenges in front of a reporter: “We’re being forced to act like spies, having to learn trade craft and encryption and all the new ways to protect sources. But we are not an intelligence agency. We’re not really spies. So, there’s going to be a time when you might make a mistake or do something that might not perfectly protect a source. This is really hard work. It’s really dangerous for everybody.”

I had explored one element of this relationship in an earlier column, “The relationship between journalists and their sources” (September 29, 2014). There are many interlocking factors that not only define the symbiotic relationship and but also spell out the obligations of journalists to their sources. My colleagues at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford have spelled out the ground rules in “The Perugia Principles for Journalists Working with Whistleblowers in the Digital Age”.

Publishing the truth

All major investigative stories draw their strength not only from the relentless work of reporters but also from conscientious sources who first alert reporters about the misdoing. Daniel Ellsberg’s crucial role in releasing the Pentagon Papers is as important as the work of the reporters of The New York Times in exposing the U.S. military’s role in Vietnam. From internationally known investigations like the Watergate stories, Snowden files, the thalidomide victims’ reports, and the Panama Papers to our own investigations in the Bofors and Rafale cases, brave sources have risked everything to enable reporters to publish the truth.

The first principle in investigative journalism is to protect your sources and defend anonymity when it is requested. James Risen was nearly arrested by the U.S. administration because he refused to identify the source of information contained in his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, about a bungled covert CIA operation involving Iran. The relationship between a source, who is willing to risk his or her career, reputation and future for the sake of truth, and a reporter cannot be reduced to a transactional equation. The relationship is built on trust and involves mutual respect. The idea of common good binds the source and the reporter. Hence, their relationship is sacrosanct.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 4:29:21 PM |

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