UNESCO promotes source confidentiality study to editors

The protection of confidentiality of journalism sources has become much more complex in the digital age, but it is as important as ever.

This was the message of a special session at the World Editors Forum in Durban, South Africa, on 9 June. The occasion served as the Africa launch of the recently released UNESCO study Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age.

Author Julie Posetti, who oversaw the study for UNESCO on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) and the University of Wollongong, told the audience there is a need to educate journalists and their sources in digital safety.

Editors should also “explain to the public what is at stake in the protection of source confidentiality, especially in the digital age,” she added.

Dawn editor Zaffar Abbas shared with the audience his experience of source confidentiality in relation to a recent story in Pakistan. He highlighted that the coverage had been in the public interest, yet his reporter had nevertheless faced confiscation of his laptop and cellphone, which risked source confidentiality.

Abbas’ response was to insist that the devices were the property of the newspaper, and that the reporter should only surrender them to the editor’s office. The Dawn editor added that the research for the UNESCO study had been useful in the newspaper’s further defence of keeping the identity of the source confidential.

UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression, Guy Berger, said that the Organization’s General Conference in 2015 had endorsed the options in the Outcome Document of the Connect-the-dots conference which included a reference to the “need for enhanced protection of the confidentiality of sources of journalism in the digital age”.

He explained that the new study built on this background, as well as on the 2013 UNESCO General Conference Resolution on Internet issues, which had stated “Privacy is essential to protect journalistic sources, which enable a society to benefit from investigative journalism, to strengthen good governance and the rule of law.”