Why anonymous sources must be protected by all means

WHY ARE ANONYMOUS news sources so important to a journalist and why do we fight to protect them?

This question is at the heart of the debate about the attempt by Parliament to force journalists to reveal sources who provide them with information on conditions of confidentiality.

As an old hand used to working with top corporate managers and senior Government officials, I have had to rely on a whole range of people, from permanent secretaries, Cabinet ministers, former university colleagues in high places in Government and even CEOs as rich sources of “inside information”.

I would not have survived as a journalist if there wasn’t a Cabinet minister friend, a board member of a parastatal, or a permanent secretary calling me once in a while for an inside tip about a scandal waiting to happen or a multi-million shilling procurement contract about to abort due to interference by this or the other powerful politician.

Indeed, a journalist cannot survive without the odd “off-the-record” or “background only” briefings which you only get when you promise confidentiality.

Sources who report misdeeds or irregular activities by their companies, ministries or parastatals face retaliation if they do so on record. They can be demoted, fired or even killed.

There is this other category of sources, whom, for lack of a better term, I will describe as “leakers”.

These will be public-spirited men or women with access to crucial information, and who will readily leak stuff to trusted journalists when it becomes obvious that public interest is about to be compromised by ill-conceived decisions.

The famous Mr Deep Throat who helped Bob Woodward unravel the Watergate conspiracy falls in this category. Mr David Mwanyekei, who blew the whistle on the Goldenberg scam, also belongs in this category.

Some of my best moments in this trade have been occasions when a Cabinet minister, permanent secretary or former university colleague allowed me a peek into a Cabinet paper marked “top secret”, on which I would report in advance before they are tabled before the cabinet.

Another rich source of leaked information is the disappointed contractor.

They will give you leaked minutes of a ministerial tender board meeting with details on how the board is about to irregularly award a multi-million shilling supply contract to a well-connected merchant.

There will be occasions when a disappointed contractor will have in his possession the score sheet of a tender evaluation committee, weeks in advance of the announcement of the tender award.

HOWEVER, THERE IS A FLIP-SIDE to everything. Confidential sources may mislead journalists. There have been occasions where reporters - in the race for the rare scoop - have been misled by sources.

But what most editors will do is to push their reporters to go beyond the quick hit and do their own digging to verify what they have been told by confidential sources.

Anonymous sources are especially critical when covering beats such as crime, the intelligence community, the armed forces and private companies which are not obliged to release information about their operations to the public.

What is my point? That if MPs thought that in introducing legislation to compel journalists to reveal their sources they were punishing journalists, they were dead wrong. The people they have undermined are the public.

For the debate about protection of news sources is not just about a reporter’s right to shield people he or she has promised confidentiality. To view the controversy as a battle between the media and the Government is to engage in over-simplification.

If news sources cannot be confident that they will be protected, they won’t come forward to offer information. Thus, the losers will not be the journalist looking for the rare scoop but members of the public who depend on the media to provide the arsenal to hold governments to account.

What the Media Bill seeks to do is to deny the public the information it needs to hold their leaders accountable.

Worse, we live in an environment where public life is infected by conspiracy-mongering. Today, when, as a journalist, you report critically about a parastatal, a Government department or a Cabinet minister, the first thing they will do will be to dismiss the criticism in all manner of conspiracy theories.

Instead of debating the substance of the criticism, they will myopically focus on the motive of the report.

The typical parastatal head, minister or politicians will not ask: Is this news report accurate or not? What are the implications of what has been reported?.

Rather, they will go: What are this reporter’s links to my rivals? Which political party does this newspaper support?

Almost every important issue descends into a farcical search for hidden agendas. Clearly, this is hardly the environment for legislating forced disclosure of confidential news sources. Ministers will go to court in mind-boggling numbers to demand disclosure of confidential sources. These people want to kill free speech.


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