Confidentiality: liable or reliable? [Archives:2005/901/Viewpoint]

December 8 2005

More than ever, the “newsgathering privilege” for confidential sources is being debated around the world and recently in Yemen. To what extent can journalists maintain the anonymity of their sources? Does this privilege extend after the event is over or the person concerned is dead? And would using this privilege affect the credibility of the journalistic reports?

In UK for example, there has been a heated debate between journalism and governance. The pressure exercised by authorities leading to the disclosure of Dr. Kelly drove him to take his own life. Dr. Kelly was the source who dismissed the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Conversely article 7 of the UK National Union of Journalists rulebook states: “A journalist shall protect confidential sources of information”. Similarly article 15 on confidential sources of the Press Complaints Commission states: “Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.”

The issue about confidential sources in Yemeni journalism has taken a rather different trend than is common around the world. Most journalists, including those in the Yemen Times, would rather not only hide the names of their sources but also hide their own names behind “Yemen Times Staff” label. Our battle is not in court halls but rather has been taken to the streets as Yemeni journalists have to defend their lives against any governmental or non-governmental threats. For example, the recent violations against the few daring journalists took place because the journalist targeted corrupt authorities and individuals inside and outside the government. The thrashing they received was not inside the court halls but was rather on the streets by masked or unidentified criminals. This has directly lead to the reluctance journalists demonstrate in mentioning the source when writing reports, sometimes to the extent of not even attempting to avail it. Yet by doing this, the credibility of the source and of the report in general are jeopardized, and it is considered bad practice in journalism.

How could Yemeni journalists maintain a balance between protecting their reliable sources and being responsible enough for the liability of the information reported? It is common practice that the original document or a statement used to support a potentially defamatory report should be retained for any future justification defense. In case of the information given could potentially be seen as sensitive information with serious consequences, such as threat to national security, the source might refuse to be identified. Then maybe the journalist should refrain from quoting him or her in the first place. Especially in a country like Yemen where the understanding of what could be seen as “threat to national security” is very much dependable on the perception of the national security itself. Although this would perhaps limit the possibility of having victim journalists, it may discourage journalists from reporting on critical issues. News gatherers claim that if the confidentiality cannot be assured then important information for an investigation report will not be provided. And so the vicious cycle goes on. What is concerning the most is in media such as the Yemen Times, what would the best alternative be? Would you, as a reader, prefer to read a somewhat interesting story without knowing the source or would you rather have the reporter compromise the risky content in order to acknowledge credibility of the source? Please send your opinion to [email protected], awaiting your contribution.