From the Winter 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.
By Kirsten B. Mitchell
Legal threats to journalists protecting their sources aren’t playing out just in U.S. federal courthouses or in Jim Taricani’s home where a judge ordered the Rhode Island television reporter confined for six months for refusing to reveal who gave him an FBI tape.
Ken Peters, a Canadian reporter for The Hamilton Spectator, is appealing his December conviction for contempt of court and subsequent sentence of $31,600 — more than $25,000 in U.S. dollars — for refusing to reveal the name of a source.
The court sought the name of a person present in 1995 when Peters received documents about serious problems at a retirement home, which sued for libel. The source of the documents had already revealed himself. During Peters’ hearing, according to an account by Reporters Without Borders, Judge David Crane criticized the Canadian media’s stance on source protection, which forces journalists to act as if they are above the law, which they are not.
Citing the Taricani case as an example, the European Federation of Journalists said there is a growing global trend of legal attacks on journalists protecting their sources. Even in countries like Portugal where the reporter’s privilege is a part of the constitution, journalists are under pressure to reveal the names of their sources.
A Lisbon court late last year handed down an 11-month suspended jail sentence to Luis Manso Preto, a reporter who refused to reveal his sources when called to testify in a drug case.
In another case, reporter Hans-Martin Tillack, Brussels correspondent for the German magazine, Stern, plans to appeal to the European Court of Justice an October court ruling that European Commission officials can see files — and learn Tillack’s sources — that were seized by Belgian police investigating the European Union’s anti-fraud activities.
Aidan White, general secretary of EFJ’s parent group, the International Federation of Journalists, is concerned about the same thing U.S. press freedom groups worry about: sources drying up.
If “journalists betray the people who talk to them, sources of information will evaporate and access to credible and vital information will be lost,” White said in a statement.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1996 in Goodwin v. United Kingdom that only “an overriding requirement in the public interest” could uphold a subpoena seeking the identity of a journalist’s source.
“Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom,” the court wrote. “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 may be adversely affected.”
That ruling helped overturn the 2003 sentence of two Belgian journalists, Douglas de Coninck and Marc Vandermeir of the daily De Morgen who were ordered by a Brussels court to pay 25 euros — about $32 — for every hour they continued to refuse to reveal their sources for an article about overspending by the Belgian State Railways, according to Reporters Without Borders. Less than two weeks later, the court reversed itself, citing Goodwin v. United Kingdom.
Protection of the journalist-source relationship ranges wildly around the world. In Nicaragua, for example, the law requires journalists to reveal their sources. In Chile, there is a legal distinction between journalists who have the right to protect their sources and those who do not. The law restricts the right to protect sources to reporters with degrees from recognized journalism schools, publishers, editors and foreign correspondents, according to the International Press Institute.
And in Zimbabwe, which the Committee to Protect Journalists describes as one of the world’s worst places to be a journalist, there is a disconnect between what the courts say and what the government does. A 1994 ruling by the Zimbabwe High Court confirmed a journalist’s right to keep sources confidential, but the ruling is not accepted by the Zimbabwean government, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
The Scandinavian countries have particularly strong source protection laws. In Sweden, for example, the protection of sources is so absolute that a journalist is bound legally from revealing sources who request anonymity. Those who don’t may be prosecuted at the behest of the source, according to Freedom of Expression Litigation Project, run jointly by the global free expression group Article 19 and the International Center for the Legal Protection of Human Rights.
Controversial coverage of the investigation of the September 2003 murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh sparked an unsuccessful attempt by the Swedish Association of Lawyers to change the law to allow authorities to seek the source of a journalist’s information, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Despite strong laws in Scandinavia protecting the journalist-source relationship, Stig Matthieson, a Danish journalist of the daily Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, faced six months in jail and a fine for not revealing his sources about Islamist activities in Denmark in 2002.
But an appeals court ruled that the information police were seeking was “not crucial,” according to Reporters Without Borders.