Tuesday, May 10, 2005


CYBER AGE BY ND BATRA From The Statesman

Trustworthy news enables good governance

Reporting news is a hazardous job.

In 2004, 53 journalists were killed, 1,146 were maltreated, and more than 600 news organisations were censured worldwide, according to the UN. Last week (3 May) was the 15th World Press Freedom Day, celebrating the theme, “Media and good governance”. The emphasis is upon accountability of those who exercise power, whether political, corporate, religious or social. Power must be used for the good of society and journalists must act as watchdogs. Free, fearless and responsible media advance human rights and lessen tyranny.

In the USA, they don’t kill journalists; but they do give them hell, using the subpoena power. Recently about 30 American journalists have been subpoenaed or questioned about confidential sources used in their reporting. Journalists cultivate confidential sources to uncover corruption and sometimes they know more about a case than crime investigators.

Jim Taricani, a Rhode Island television reporter, was put under house arrest for four months for his refusal to disclose the source of the videotape showing a state official taking bribes from an undercover law enforcement informant. Sometimes whistle-blowers leak documents or talk on the promise of confidentiality to reporters. Reporters must report if they have information that impacts society. Not to report truth would be not only complicity in crime but also an unethical and unprofessional behaviour.

American society, for more than four decades, has been struggling with how to strike a balance between the news media’s obligation to do investigative reporting by cultivating confidential sources and the needs of the courts and law enforcement for access to crucial information that journalists might possess. Sometimes courts, and even legislatures, demand information including photos and videos that have not even been published. They issue subpoenas to get the necessary information, failing which they exercise the contempt power. Contempt power could chill freedom of the Press because journalists would dread going behind public relations handouts to find out the truth about the misbehaviour of public men. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press report, Agents of Discovery, 1,326 subpoenas seeking notes, photos, tapes or testimony, were served on 440 news organisations that responded to the 1999 survey. The situation is no different today. State shield laws that are supposed to protect journalists from unnecessary disclosures are not always helpful.

“In opinion after opinion,” says the report, “judges fail to acknowledge any special role for the media in a democratic society, or any public interest in ensuring that the media remain impartial and disinterested both in perception and reality.”

We have to, however, keep in mind that when a journalist is the only source of information that constitutes a crucial piece of evidence in a legal case, information so compelling that without revealing its source there is a danger of justice being miscarried, in such a circumstance the source must be revealed regardless of the promise of confidentiality.

After all, the right to a fair trial is no less important than freedom of the Press. But where do you strike the balance?

In the course of time, the US Supreme Court began to use “preferred position balance theory” in deciding conflicts between freedom of the Press and other rights.

In numerous rulings, the court held that some freedoms, especially those granted by the First Amendment (freedom of speech and the Press), are fundamental to a free society and consequently deserving of more protection than other constitutional values.

Nonetheless, freedom of the Press does not trump all other rights, especially the constitutionally guaranteed right of a person to a fair trial that may require access to crucial evidence in the possession of a journalist. Thus by giving freedom of the ress a preferred position in balance with other rights, the government bears the burden of proof that forcing a journalist to disclose his news source is absolutely necessary.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post depended upon a confidential source, Deep Throat, for their path-breaking investigative reporting about Watergate that brought President Nixon down. One day we might know the identity of Deep Throat. Leaks form the office of Independent Council Kenneth Starr enabled reporters to uncover the Clinton-Lewinskey affair. Bill Clinton was the second President in a generation who was humiliated but in the process the nation renewed itself. Corporate whistle-blowers disclose corrupt accounting practices, faulty products and other malfeasances to journalists so that society might benefit.

Reporters are not supposed to act as a handmaid of law enforcement. When the court or the government intrudes into the newsroom and news-gathering processes, consequences can be terrible for the freedom of the Press. What happens if information obtained from confidential sources is revealed? It damages the reporter-source relationship and threatens news organisations’ image of independence.

When sources suspect collusion between law enforcement and news organisations, trust is lost. Free flow of accurate and reliable information is choked, and power begins to corrupt. An independent judiciary and a responsible free Press are the watchdogs of an open, secular, democratic society; and they must be kept apart. But journalists do misbehave sometimes and they should be punished. In 2003, CIA asked diplomat Joseph Wilson to investigate whether Saddam Hussein tried to obtain uranium (yellow cakes) from Niger. Wilson found no evidence and was publicly critical of the Bush administration for making such a claim. Immediately after the critical report, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote a syndicated column stating that “two senior administration officials” told him that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent.

Should Novak have published the name of the agent knowing fully well that she might have been killed once her name was known? Journalists should be watchdogs, not mad dogs. Malice is not journalism.

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