How Far Should A Journalist Go To Protect A Source?

The Quint’s reporter might have let us down in revealing the identities of those who helped her on her ‘sting’ on Army's sahayak system.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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“If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.”


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That is what Judith Miller told Judge Hogan when asked to reveal her source before she was taken to prison. I do urge you to read this piece after you’re done with this one. Judith Miller served 12 weeks in prison and only revealed her source to the court after her source agreed to be identified and gave her permission to name him.

This morning’s Indian Express had this report on page 9. The bit that troubled me the most was:

According to police sources, the journalist has shared all details, including the contacts who helped her enter the Deolali cantonment where the sting operation was carried out. ‘She has given us a chronology of the events leading to the sting operation, and has also shared details of the contacts within the Army who helped her get inside the prohibited area. She has even shared her chats with various jawans whom she had spoken during the course of her story on an app-based messenger service. We have taken a copy of those chats,’ said the officer.”

I don’t want to conflate several issues so this is not about the ethics of the sting-op itself, whether that was responsible journalism or journalism at all. My colleague Manisha Pande has written an excellent report on this and I pretty much agree with how she has presented the case.

This piece is about journalists protecting sources. In that context, the journalist in question Poonam Agarwal might have let us all down. I do not want to be in a hurry to condemn or pass judgment on this but I do want to raise some serious questions on the implications of this development. Do we as news professionals give away our sources so easily? Or to put it in pop lingo — do we rat out members of our team when the heat is on us?

Let’s face it, in India we fear the government way more than any Western democracy. Fifty-six inch chest-thumping notwithstanding, we are light years away from comprehending and embracing the concept of freedom of expression or genuinely appreciating the value of a free press. No government has wanted a free press and none in the near future will. That pushback has to come from news professionals and news consumers.

In India, every little day-to-day activity in running an enterprise can potentially be used to destroy you with frightening ease by government agencies. And in the present climate even be cheered on by a polarised and easily biddable support base, depending on who does the bidding. Less government and more governance may be a great slogan but anyone who conducts any business can tell you (but will not because that could trigger exactly what they complain about) that the only reason your enterprise has not yet been destroyed is not because it can’t be done, it’s because the government does not find you worth going after…yet.

It is in this environment that journalism becomes even more important and those sources that get us access to public interest stories become even more valuable. Sources will help journalists only if they know they will be insulated from consequences. It is the management’s responsibility in news organisations to insulate reporters from pressure so they can do their jobs without fear. It’s the reporter’s job to protect their source and those that help them get stories in public interest.

Whether you and I consider Quint’s report journalistically responsible or not is not the point, the fact is they did and their reporter did. If that is the case then the source for this report should be worthy of being protected. The jawans who spoke to Poonam will be in trouble if indeed all the footage has been surrendered to the police. Careers will be destroyed and more lives ruined.

I don’t know if she has given them all the footage she had. It is possible she was smart and did not give it all away. I know my boss at Newstrack, Madhu Trehan, did that with an aggressive security officer when the Pokhran nuclear tests happened in 1998. Madhu was in Rajasthan with cameraman Ashok Bhanot to get a report from as close to the action as possible. As they were driving back from Pokhran, a team of uniformed men stopped them. An impatient officer said in no uncertain terms that he had the authority to open fire at the Newstrack team because of where they had trespassed. After much negotiating, a bargain was struck that Madhu and team will be allowed to go and not taken into custody provided they surrender the footage. The camera was switched on and the tape ejected and surrendered as was another tape lying in the car’s front seat. But the tape in the camera was blank as was the other one. The footage that had been shot was in another cassette in Ashok’s bag. They got out of there, the footage was safe, nothing was given away about which village they reached through and who got them there.

Now, I don’t know if Poonam has done that with the police and not surrendered the entire footage, but I will be optimistic and not rule out that possibility for the sake of the jawans on her footage and others she spoke to.

I did discuss this case with Madhu Trehan and this is what her reaction was. Hey, girl, have you lost your mind? First you dupe a jawan into an interview without his knowledge, now you give away all your sources? You have set a precedent that endangers every journalist and their sources. Who will speak to us if journalists cannot be trusted to not reveal identities? We will be told by authorities, ‘Poonam Agarwal gave her sources. No reason why you can’t’. I believe the journalist community would have stood by her if she had refused to reveal the sources.

Another question to be asked is this. While as news consumers or reporters we expect journalists to protect their sources, would management protect reporters and act as the wall between potential harassment by governments and security agencies, to build confidence among reporters? And for such confidence to emerge will the political class that doesn’t tire of singing paeans of freedom of the press and the cherished ideals of democracy, protect news organisations from being unfairly harassed? Or will news organisations continue to be pushed around because of vendetta? Who will be the first to act in public interest and not self-interest? The reporter? News management? The government? To expect the government to act fairly is unrealistic.

“The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries, but those with an independent press that works every day to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know.” That’s Judith Miller again, to the judge when she was asked to surrender her source. And might I remind you to please read this piece.


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