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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Should journalists be forced to reveal their sources?
Judges at the Hague are due to consider a journalist's request not to be forced to give evidence at the international war crimes tribunal.

Former Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal is being subpoenaed to testify at the trial of two Bosnian Serbs charged with genocide.

He is resisting on principle, and the BBC's legal affairs correspondent, Jon Silverman, says the case is likely to set an important precedent.

He says it highlights significant issues about whether journalists should be forced to testify at trials, potentially putting themselves and their colleagues at risk.

Should a reporter be forced to testify in court? Or should a journalist be entitled to protect his or her sources?

This debate is now closed. Please read your comments below.


No, journalists should not be forced to reveal their sources. That would be the end of the freedom of the press. As we in the UK have seen recently, this freedom is already under threat from another source; the ability of media magnates to buy favours and friendship from political parties. A law forcing journalists to reveal their sources would almost certainly be abused by our politicians.
Elsa Bowen, N. Ireland


If journalists behaved with real integrity then the answer would be yes

Keith Spencer, Kuwait
If journalists behaved with real integrity then the answer would be yes, but sadly so many journalists are no more than unprincipled hacks, and the hiding of dubious sources is a convenience which should not be extended to them. If the truth is out there, then what harm is there in letting it shine?
Keith Spencer, Kuwait

The journalist should not be forced to give evidence or cite his sources. Nevertheless, the events that journalist's record should be taken into account as an "objective account of what occurred" - this should be done on a historic basis. Objectivity is crucial to the public acceptance of journalistic reports. The BBC's objectivity is recognised by the Palestinian soldiers and evident in their allowing the BBC to film their night-time operations in the Middle-East. The courts should not force the journalists to give evidence; but they should judge the evidence as presented by various reporting agencies -- in this way, agencies will strive to be objective in their reports and, hopefully, stop atrocities going unnoticed.
Graham, Taiwan

This is a double edged sword if I ever saw one. On principle the answer would have to be no as investigative journalism is an important part of any democracy. However, there's far too much gutter journalism out there that I'd gladly see having to reveal their sources. Maybe then there'd be less sensationalism and more serious news.
Christine, UK

Perhaps the Police should be obliged to reveal their sources too? Would this make for better justice? I think not. Investigative journalists perform a valuable function in society, and should be allowed to do their job without hindrance from the courts.
Barry Honeyford, UK

No, journalists should never be forced to reveal their sources. It'd put them in danger and be the end of a free press. But equally, anonymous statements should never be accepted as evidence in court. (I'm a bit disturbed these principles aren't obvious to everyone!)
Ben Drake, York, UK


I think that a journalist should be forced to testify in court so that justice is done

Rose, Uganda
I think that a journalist should be forced to testify in court so that justice is done. He should not be entitled to protect his sources because only then can there be a fair trial. Journalists have always made mistakes (or misquoted people) in their reporting and if that information is the one that is going to be used to try someone the journalist should reveal his sources so that the Court can get to the bottom of the case. Evidence can only be credible if sources are revealed and if it will endanger the sources, Courts should provide means of protection.
Rose, Uganda

Journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources. The reason journalism works so well and has done for so long is that their sources trust them not to reveal their identity. If this is broken just once then it will be ruined forever. A precedent will be set and that is that. I agree that there are cases with the tabloids where yes, sources should be named but you cannot have it both ways and sources need to be protected if those journalists who have integrity are to be protected. This really should not happen.
mel, uk

When we can truly claim to have a free press then I would 100% support the right of journalists to keep their sources anonymous. However, the European press is far from "free", Murdoch, Berlusconi.. ad nauseum. Monopoly ownership of the media is a far more insidious threat to freedom than this particular case.
Alistair Jones, uk

This is a tricky one. Generally I would support the right of Investigative Journalists to protect their sources, but there must be exceptions, such as when the evidence of the source has a strong material bearing on a criminal prosecution. On the other hand, the gutter press, with their obsession for publishing kiss-and-tell stories, or revealing what "a source close to person X" has to say about X's sex life, deserve no such protection.
John, England

In general, no, journalists should not have to reveal their sources, there are many documented cases where serious criminal acts have come to light through information being leaked to the media, Watergate being just one that springs to mind. Having said that, I personally think that far too many so called journalists try to hide behind that protection to justify stories which are lies, mis-truths and pure fiction at the best, and sheer malevolent spite at the worst
Glynne M, UK & USA

When we say "reveal their sources", is it to the public or to a closed court? If it is to a closed court, then all those present are also bound by law not to reveal what was divulged. However, if it is to the public, then I think it should be "no" do not reveal your source. No one should be above the law but the law has a duty to protect innocent people and the sources of journalists could sometimes be classified as such (or at least innocent until proven guilty).
Tamzin, France

Yes, but only to those in a need to know position. This might allay the possibility that the journalist does not really have an accurate source of information. There is a tendency for journalistic egotism to take over from honest accurate unbiased news reporting and suddenly making the news as against factual reporting!
Keith P.Wright-Osment, USA

It is not a journalist's job to investigate on behalf of the authorities. All their sources should be 100% confidential at all times.
Stephen, Wales


If you take away our right to keep our sources secret, you are stepping down the path towards dictatorship

Daniel Brett, Cambridge, UK
If all journalists gave their sources, then serious investigative journalism would not exist. Many of the most important stories, such as the events behind the Bloody Sunday massacre or even the BBC's McIntyre documentaries, require gaining the trust of witnesses who wish to remain anonymous, mostly due to the fear that they will be unduly harassed by the authorities. Many journalists like me are willing to go to prison to defend our right to keep our sources private. Some of my colleagues in Africa and the US have served prison sentences to defend their promises to not reveal those who contribute to their investigations. Keeping the confidence of our sources is often crucial to the public interest and vital to a free press which seeks to make the government accountable for its actions. If you take away our right to keep our sources secret, you are stepping down the path towards dictatorship.
Daniel Brett, Cambridge, UK

Why should journalists be above the law? What is the point of their reporting if they avoid giving evidence and the perpetrators walk free? Journalists are often the only ones to witness actual events...the flip side of making a career from witnessing people's misery is surely to assist with the passage of justice.
Ben, UK

No. The principal of journalistic integrity is one that must continue to stand. If a journalist gives his assurance to a "source", then that assurance should be stone-cast.
Dave, UK

Of course journalists should not have to reveal their sources in ANY case! If potential sources of stories could not rely on confidentiality would not all sources of future stories "dry up"? What would have ever happened to Richard Nixon and the whole Watergate scandal had "Deep Throat" actually had to reveal his true identity?
Will, USA


Where would it end? Would the police have to name their informants too?

Kathy, UK
Where would it end? Would the police have to name their informants too? We have a free press. We also have a principle of innocent until proven guilty, and laws of slander and libel. Journalists receive information, as do police, that tells them where to look for evidence or for a story. But serious journalists and police alike cannot act on a tip-off. They must gain evidence that enables them to build a story or a case. Only when they have further evidence can they act on it. Revealing the sources of the original information would leave the informant open to victimisation and violence, and serve only to discourage the practice of whistle blowing. Justice would take a huge step back.
Kathy, UK

Yes and No. Journalists should be entitled to protect their sources in the event of simple reporting. (Otherwise how could the government ever get away with leaking/saying something and then claiming they didn't?) However, once a case goes to court, a journalist's evidence may be required to ensure a fair trial from both the prosecution's and the defence's point of view. A journalist's word is insufficient - after all they rank equally with politicians for lying - there must be the supporting witnesses to ensure that a person is fairly tried. In an above comment an old lady has collected the evidence and given it to the journalist. No court would believe a journalist and his "evidence" if he relied on the old lady to collect it. Result the drug dealer would walk. However, if the journalist is forced to give up their sources, the witness goes to court and the drug dealer goes to prison. Suppose it is the other way around ... i.e. the journalist has uncovered evidence to defend the alleged drug dealer but refuses to release his sources so the alleged drug dealer goes to prison for a crime they did not commit. Democracy is about the rule of law - if this breaks down democracy no longer exists. Hence anything that maintains fair trials maintains democracy.
James, UK

I am also a freelance journalist and I have had information provided to me from people who could have their livelihoods and lives threatened if they were found out. I would never think of turning in a source, because the condition we agree to is their anonymity. However, I also saddened to say that I know of a few journalists who have been known to produce their "sources" out of thin air. This subject is too grey to provide a definitive answer. Doctors and lawyers are given privileges of anonymity, at times to the detriment of society. Are we to change this as well?
E. Jacobs, US, UK


Some people risk their lives to speak to journalists

Henry Harington, England
No one will reveal crime or corruption to journalists if there is the remotest risk they will be exposed. Some people risk their lives to speak to journalists. There is no reason why conversations between journalists and their sources should not rank alongside the confidential relationship patients have with the doctors or clients with their lawyers. The only beneficiaries of forcing journalists to reveal sources are those who use fear and intimidation to commit crime. Justice will not be served because journalists would not uncover crimes that lead to convictions if they did not have anonymous sources.
Henry Harington, England

Of course a journalist should be required to testify in court, as are all other professions. There are limits to what certain professions are required to testify about - doctors, clergy, journalists etc. Journalists should not under any circumstances be required to identify their sources. I am surprised that the judiciary of a democracy would even consider such an obnoxious and dangerous proposition.
Quentin Holt, New Zealand

Not only should journalists appear in court and reveal their sources when requested to do so, they should also be liable to have their accreditation withdrawn and subject to criminal proceedings when found to be lying.
Carl, Yugoslavia


The confidentiality of a reporter's sources is a cornerstone of a free press

Robin Prestage, USA
Should journalists reveal their sources? This old newspaperman says: Absolutely not! Not to the courts, not to the government, not to their editors and not to their colleagues. The confidentiality of a reporter's sources is a cornerstone of a free press.
Robin Prestage, USA

So he's "resisting on principal", eh? Hm...What about the principal known as justice? What if this gentleman had the one piece of information that could make the difference between a criminal being imprisoned or back out on the streets? What if there is the most remote chance that an innocent person could go to prison because a journalist is too tied to his or her "principals"? To be honest, when I read "an unnamed source", I tend to give less credibility to the journalist who wrote the piece. (Guardian, take note!) It is too easy to start and perpetuate rumours when a journalist has no accountability. Even if you don't think sources should be named in every article, surely you can understand the necessity of this revelation at trial.
Jennifer Ethington, USA

No, journalists must never be forced to reveal sources; it'd be the end of a free press. But it's surely equally obvious that anonymous statements should never be accepted as evidence in court. It disturbs me a bit that these principles aren't obvious to everyone!
Ben Drake, York, UK

The issue, as far as I can make out, is not about revealing sources. It's about whether or not journalists can be seen to be taking sides. It's about giving evidence based on interviews they conducted with NAMED sources while covering the conflict. Journalists write many things during the course of their work, but they need to remain objective. They cannot be seen to be coming out for one side or the other (as in a War Crimes court) - otherwise no one will trust them.
Sanjay, UK/India

In a criminal court hearing they should have to give their sources. If we have a free press we can't have a rule of anonymity for them, but not for those they cover.
Alistair Strachan, Northern Ireland

With the current relationship our government seems to be having with the press, this is a privilege that should be upheld. Otherwise, the freedom of the press will be eroded by lack of, or intimidation of, journalists' sources.
Alastair Alexander, UK


I fail to see the principle at stake here, especially when compared to the charge of genocide

Dougal McKinnon, UK
If I read this story correctly (as given by other reports on this website), the journalist has been called to testify regarding an interview that he conducted with one of the defendants. No other sources are involved. I fail to see the principle at stake here, especially when compared to the charge of genocide.
Dougal McKinnon, UK

They should be forced to reveal their sources to me, Herbert Gottlieb, Jr. Then I'll decide if it's relevant. It's the only way, folks.
Herbert, USA

Who says they are being "forced"? They do have a choice. Tell what they know or be in contempt of court and spend some time in a cell. Or perhaps they think they are above the laws that apply to all the rest of us?
Chris Anikey, UK

So Jonathan Randall doesn't want to testify in court because his testament would/might put him or his colleagues at risk. He has already testified in the press, and at a profit, why not in court? Ah yes, in court it would be under oath and he would be held accountable and the accused would have a change to rebut and cross examine. And why should their sources not be held accountable? They have in effect already testified, and at a profit as well. More than once 'unnamed sources' have been wrong.
John Alkire, UK/USA

If it could be proved that the press operated with the slightest sense of integrity, then the case for investigative journalists protecting the identity of whistle blowers could and should be upheld. If the press were trying to inform, rather than acting as perverse voyeurs exploiting tragedy then possibly, possibly. However given the utter jingoistic/inaccurate/politically motivated tripe perpetuated as newsworthy by those exempt from the consequences of their actions I would argue that they have no defenceż
Neil , England

No. Those who 'tip off' journalists would be reluctant to do so. It is better to have a scurrilous, inaccurate, malicious and trivial press which from time to time prints a serious story than a muzzled tame press.
Brian Clowes, Wales

There is no single answer to this question and is contingent on the situation. In each case, the implications of revealing the source will be different and these need to be considered. The following question needs to be asked: "will the potential benefits of revealing the source outweigh any associated risk?" The answer to this question can be subject to huge uncertainty and so great care must be taken.
Jayesh Modhwadia, Loughborough, England

A rather poor effort at protecting poor journalism. In short, it says, "just believe me because I am a journalist". In most cases their behaviour does command this confidence.
Tridiv borah, Germany/India

If journalists had to reveal there sources there would soon be no sources!
Gerry Anstey, England


I feel we would harm the whole democratic system of the UK if this ruling was applied in every case

Damian, UK
The thought that journalists would have to reveal their sources horrifies me. If we ignore the so-called 'celebrity' news and look at the serious news, it's not hard to see why people insist on anonymity when talking to journalists. There are things that the general public NEED to know in order to ensure a democratic government system. This information is not published in a press release - it is the result of diligent journalists digging away until they get to the facts. While I couldn't care less if the courts insisted that a purveyor of puerile celebrity gossip was revealed, I feel we would harm the whole democratic system of the UK if this ruling was applied in every case.
Damian, UK

My answer is that anyone giving evidence against another human being, or, for any reason that will affect a human's life in any form, should be made to reveal his source of obtaining information. A person or people who are in the unenviable position of someone giving evidence against him that could be incorrect, and being tried on that evidence is not getting a fair trial! If anyone is prepared to write about, or talk about, or give evidence for or against, should not be able to do so unless it is credible. We see injustices being committed every day through the newspapers, radio, and television through incorrect reporting. My response is "yes" they should reveal their source of information!
George W Allene, UK

This is an old complaint of mine regarding journalists. They always complain about government, and even personalities, not being "open" enough, and yet they have no scruples about publishing so-called information from "unnamed sources". Surely, if a person in a position of public responsibility makes a statement to do with my taxes or how I am governed, or that can effect the public's perception of a public issue, I have a right to know who is making such utterances?

It is very poor journalism, in my opinion, to afford anonymity to somebody passing scurrilous and probably self-serving information into the public domain! It is the arrogance of journalists that they think this double-standard should prevail! In my opinion, any statement by someone on the public payroll (the much vaunted "government official speaking on condition of anonymity") should be fully sourced.
Mark M. Newdick, US/UK

If their story is being used as evidence in a criminal court they are morally obliged to reveal their sources - otherwise the evidence is just their word, surely?
Wendy, UK


Each case needs to be examined in detail

Pete, Wales
This is a far from easy question to answer. Imagine a local newspaper talking to an old lady about local crack cocaine gangs. Let's assume that this lady has gathered video evidence of their activities and as a result of this the gang is arrested and (hopefully) put away. To reveal the source of this information would put that person in a great deal of personal danger. On the other side of the argument there is the "person close to the prime minister" type reports that we are all getting thoroughly sick of. Each case needs to be examined in detail and if there is a chance that doing so puts innocent people at risk then we need to do what is right.
Pete, Wales

In many countries in the world it is not possible to speak openly to the press in any kind of safety. (Consider anti-communist Chinese, or someone from an equally repressive regime; if they spoke to the media and then had their identity revealed they would just disappear.) If we want objective reporting from such countries, it is absolutely essential for journalists to be able to protect their sources, otherwise no-one would risk talking to them in the first place.
Adrian Baugh, UK

As a general principle, no, journalists should not have to reveal sources. How many stories would not be revealed if the source thought they might be named? However, the journalist should be able to use the original information to uncover physical evidence to use as proof, making the naming of their source irrelevant.
Gary, UK

I am a freelance journalist writing for the national press on a number of issues such as town planning. I get sources leaking me information on corporate misdoings and corruption regularly because these people believe the truth should come out. They also want to keep their jobs, if we are to have whistleblowers who believe in higher things than personal enrichment then keeping your sources anonymous is a must.
James, UK

This is a tricky one. Generally I would support the right of investigative journalists to protect their sources, but there must be exceptions, such as when the evidence of the source has a strong material bearing on a criminal prosecution. On the other hand, the gutter press, with their obsession for publishing kiss-and-tell stories, or revealing what "a source close to person X" has to say about X's sex life, deserve no such protection.
John, England

See also:

26 Feb 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Press freedoms in the spotlight
26 Apr 01 | Africa
Press Freedom Day
05 Jul 99 | e-cyclopedia
Privacy: The threat to press freedom
02 May 02 | Northern Ireland
'Reveal sources' says inquiry
02 Sep 99 | Europe
Journalist loses notes ruling
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