Can Secret Sources Be Media Watchdogs?

I would have been an unnamed source, a highly placed official, or an insider who cannot be named. “Imagine you are a police officer,” said a colleague. “Tell me something from a cop’s point of view. I have a deadline to meet.”

This was a few years ago and I begged off for, at the time, no reason other than a sluggish afternoon imagination. The thought bothered me when he hung up, though. This was an international publication; it was a feature that obviously had a police angle. He was not known for his political writings or even opinion pieces. He was on a different trip, but felicity with language and the right contacts had given him a break. His brief, if any, was to cover the seamier side of the city, an aspect he was rather well-acquainted with due to his personal forays.

It was evident that his sources were largely made up. But what might have happened if the issue turned out to be sensitive?

This subject has come to the forefront due to the recent controversy over the Army chief’s letter being leaked. The Times of India reported:

If a case is booked under the Official Secrets Act, can investigators issue summons to Saikat Dutta, the author of the story published in DNA, asking him to disclose the identity of his source? What will happen if he were to claim journalistic privilege, given that it is yet to be codified in India? Can the courts invoke “national security” to override the confidentiality of journalistic sources?

This is a delicate area. Is it a matter of national security or of the tarnishing of image? Should journalists play the role of vigilantes or of reporting the facts available to them? Is investigative journalism always about getting it right? We return to the question of paid journalism – and the transaction can be cashless. Is someone with ulterior motives involved in feeding these leaks? What is the veracity of these without recourse to motives and background information?

The report further states:

There is no clear answer to any of these questions as the balance of conflicting interests – source confidentiality versus larger public interest – depends on a case-by-case appraisal. While the Supreme Court has so far not been called upon to deal with this delicate balance, the high courts in the few cases that came up before them have tended to let public interest arguments ride roughshod over journalistic privilege.

The confidentiality of sources is important, but it often surprises me that when such important issues are dealt with why do the sources not approach the authorities with the information? Are they scared of meeting the fate of whistle blowers? Do media people cultivate insiders to get scoops or to correct the wrongs?

We have often seen instances where newspapers and television channels talk about being the first to break a story, they gloat that it was discussed in Parliament.

The latter should make the government rethink about how they can tackle the privacy of the sources when they use media reports to buffer/dispute arguments. This is shaky ground if national interest is selective and media exposes are used when convenient.

It might also be prudent to ask: would the police reveal names of informers on their rolls if certain criminal cases require such intrusion? They have often said they are anonymous and provide leads. This does result in independent investigation, or could be a diversionary move.

Is the government responsible for the protection of journalists working independently? If they keep in touch with criminals, and it results in threats and even murder, all the while protecting their sources, who does it benefit? Do the authorities have to go through the process of investigating what was not revealed?

This is not to suggest that unnamed sources should not be used. Often, it is not sources, but the subjects themselves who choose off-the-record conversations. Is it possible that they are quoted as ‘reliable sources’?

What about journalists who are seen, sometimes, only to please certain sections as complicit in crimes and arrested?

It also raises the question about right to information. What if a citizen files a petition under RTI to have the sources revealed for such arrests as national interest is not only for politicians?

(c)Farzana Versey

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