Explainer: Source Confidentiality: Reporter’s Golden Rule

Pictures of Nigerian journalists interviewing someone [Photo: BBC]

For every journalist, the cardinal rule of success is the ability to protect one’s sources despite pressure from the public particularly the state actors who more than often form the object of investigations by the reporter.

Every successful journalist knows that what separates him/her and others in the daily rigours of the beat is the ability to keep the confidentiality of the sources that assist in carrying out constitutional duties of keeping the public abreast of happenings around them.

Just like a police detective will baulk at revealing witnesses’ details in the course of an investigation, a good journalist will be willing to pay with the last drop of the blood to protect a source.

In most cases, this put the media on the pathway of confrontation with state actors who often do not have an inkling of this great responsibility on the reporter.

The case of a PREMIUM TIMES reporter, Samuel Ogundipe, who is currently undergoing pressure and humiliation in his attempt to defend his journalistic oath will no doubt be a litmus test for the Nigerian media and its legal system.

The Arrest

The police, through SARS. on Tuesday arrested and detained Mr Ogundipe, who covers the security sector for PREMIUM TIMES.

Apart from Mr Ogundipe, this newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Musikilu Mojeed, and its education correspondent, Azeezat Adedigba, were also briefly detained and manhandled by the police at the SARS headquarters in Abuja.

Ms Adedigba was later released after over three hours of detention.

Messrs Mojeed and Ogundipe were driven from the SARS headquarters in Abuja to the IGP Monitoring Unit at Force Headquarters where Mr Ogundipe was made to write a statement.

At the police headquarters, a deputy commissioner, Sani Ahmadu, was heard directing lawyers to “rush to court” to obtain a warrant to detain Mr Ogundipe.

Mr Mojeed, thereafter, asked Mr Ahmadu if he was aware that asking a journalist to reveal his source of a story, is an embarrassment to Nigeria as global journalism standards dissuades such.

“I don’t care if I embarrass Nigeria or not. I have the right to keep him here and I will keep him until he reveals his source,” was the response the DCP gave.

Officials at the police headquarters told PREMIUM TIMES that the directive to detain the journalist came directly from the Inspector General of Police who is said to be angry at this newspaper’s critical reporting of his activities.

Local and international rights groups, activists, lawyers and other Nigerians have called for the unconditional and immediate release of the reporter who is still in detention.

Mr Ogundipe has now been secretly arraigned on criminal charges bordering on theft of police documents in a court in Kubwa, Abuja. The police did not reveal to the judge that he is a journalist neither did they allow him speak with his lawyers or a family member. He was arraigned without legal representation.

Reporter’s Privilege, Ethical Burden

Wikipedia resource on journalism perhaps captures the burden on reporters to protect their sources. It calls it an international law.

”The protection of sources, sometimes also referred to as the confidentiality of sources or in the U.S. as the reporter’s privilege is a right accorded to journalists under the laws of many countries, as well as under international law. It prohibits authorities, including the courts, from compelling a journalist to reveal the identity of an anonymous source for a story.

”The right is based on a recognition that without a strong guarantee of anonymity, many would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information of public interests with journalists. As a result, problems such as corruption or crime might go undetected and unchallenged, to the ultimate detriment of society as a whole.

”In spite of any such legal protections, the pervasive use of traceable electronic communications by journalists and their sources provides governments with a tool to determine the origin of information,” it explains.

The News Manual, a resource for reporters also weighs in on this legal protection afforded journalists in the discharge of their duties.

”The words “confidence” and “confidentiality” are based on the Latin word for trust. When you are given information in confidence, this usually means that you promise that you will not tell anyone else where you got it from. Your confidential informant trusts you to keep their identity secret. Agreeing to accept non-attributable information is the most common example of confidentiality.

”Although journalists are always encouraged to work within the law, confidentiality is one situation in which you may have to defy the law for a greater good. Revealing a confidential source may assist the law in prosecuting one case, but you must defend a system of confidentiality which encourages the exposure of many future cases.

”Journalists are bound by the law; but they believe it is in the best interests of society to have a way in which injustice, abuse and corruption can be made public. It is not in society’s best interests to have only one channel (the legal system) through which wrongdoing can be brought to light. The legal system itself has flaws, so there must be other methods of correcting wrongs; journalism can be one of those ways. You must not see confidentiality only as protecting one source of information; it is also protecting freedom of speech.”

It says it is a right that must be defended even at personal risks.

”Once you have given your word to a source that you will protect their confidentiality, you must stick to that promise all the way, even if that takes you to prison. Unless the source agrees, you cannot tell the police, the judge, your editor or even your mother.

”So if you do not feel that you can go to jail to protect a confidential source, do not give your promise to them in the first place. Tell them at the start of any interviews that you will reveal their names if ordered by a court. They will probably then refuse to give you any more information,” it adds.

”One of the constitutive features of a democratic state is the state that embraces fundamental rights and freedoms, among others, the freedom of expression, including the protection of journalistic confidentiality sources. Across the world, a free press depends on the free flow of information from the media to the people and from the people to the media.

”It is noteworthy that the privilege of non-disclosure of confidentiality sources is one of the core principles of journalists. Without upholding this privilege, journalists have little, if any, real role to play in the society,” says Fred Nkusi, in a New York Times piece.

Activists, Media Experts Weigh In

The International Press Centre (IPC) in a statement by its director, Lanre Arogundade, said it was particularly dismayed.

“This, to us, is a clear assault on press freedom and a clear threat to the safety of the detained journalist and his colleagues.

“The Police Authorities are also hereby reminded that the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law, enacted in 2011, in Section 16 subsection C confers on the media ‘Journalism Confidentiality Privileges’ and as such should desist from engaging in unconstitutional acts. We condemn the arrests and detention of the concerned journalists and hereby demand the immediate release of Mr. Ogundipe.”

The umbrella body of journalists in Nigeria also expresses dissatisfaction.

“The NUJ is horrified by the constant harassment and molestation of journalists by the police and other agents of the state and requests that such should abate forthwith.

“It should be noted that confidentiality of sources is necessary for good journalism to flourish and journalists should not be coerced into revealing such sources.

“We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Samuel Ogundipe and an end to all forms of impunity against the media,” it said.

”Asking a journalist to reveal his source is more like asking the police to divulge details of an ongoing investigation.

”The protection of sources, sometimes also referred to as the confidentiality of sources is a right accorded to journalists under the laws of many countries including Nigeria, as well as under international law.

”It prohibits authorities, including the courts, from compelling a journalist to reveal the identity of an anonymous source for a story. The right is based on a recognition that without a strong guarantee of anonymity, many would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information of public interests with journalists. As a result, problems such as corruption or crime might go undetected and unchallenged, to the ultimate detriment of society as a whole,” explains Lanre Suraj of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP)

The international rights group, Amnesty International ,also flayed the detention of the journalist.

“The Nigerian police must immediately and unconditionally release journalist Samuel Ogundipe, who has been in unlawful police detention since yesterday,” the Amnesty said in its statement.

“Reports that police detained Samuel Ogundipe with the intention of forcing him to reveal his sources are extremely disturbing and illustrate the level of harassment and intimidation that Nigerian journalists face. The duty of journalists is not to please the authorities – it is to share information in the interest of the public, and forcing journalists to reveal their sources is illegal,” it added.

Akin Fadeyi Foundation (AFF), conveners of the inter-sectoral campaign against corruption in Nigeria – CORRUPTION NOT IN MY COUNTRY – said the group is alarmed at this attack on the media.

“It is equally laughable that a supposed law enforcement institution which is expected to be informed and versed in the doctrinal tenets of the media profession regarding confidentiality is demanding and pressurising Samuel Ogundipe, a reporter to divulge the source of information over a story published by the newspaper, and several newspapers on a correspondence between the Inspector General of Police and the Vice President. We expected the police to know better, pick a learning from Samuel’s bold exposure and therefore, finetune its internal processes for better outputs in subsequent outings,” it said in a statement.”

In its reaction, the Nigerian Institute of Journalism demanded Mr Ogundipe’s immediate release saying he (Ogundipe) acted within the confines of ethics of the profession

“We are also adding our voice to the immediate release of detained @PremiumTimesng Reporter, Samuel Ogundipe by the @PoliceNG now. It’s not a crime to be active in one’s line of duties,” the journalism training institute wrote on its Twitter page.

“The arrest of @SamuelOgundipe a Journalist with @PremiumTimesng by @PoliceNG for not disclosing his news source, journalists are not expected to disclose sources. The police should stop arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens. Not on a day government announced #ReformPoliceNG,” said Kayode Ogundamisi, influential public commentator and analyst.

“Arresting, detaining @PremiumTimesng journalist @SamuelOgundipe to compel source disclosure is a constitutional violation that should have no place in democracy. @PoliceNG #IGPIdris should order his immediate & unconditional release #FreeSamuelOgundipe @PLACNG @SituationRoomNg,” Clement Nwankwo, a human rights lawyer wrote.

“Dear @ProfOsinbajo, on the very day you set the ball rolling on reforming SARS, the same SARS have detained a journalist, @SamuelOgundipe of @PremiumTimesng, and are trying to force him to reveal his source for a story,” Cheta Nwanze, a data analyst and public policy expert wrote.

Nigerians patiently wait

For now, Mr Ogundipe may have his day in court as he has been secretly arraigned by the police even without legal support. His finances have been crippled by the freezing of his bank account.

While there is no evidence that he has been tortured at the SARS facility known for brutalising suspects, he is certainly traumatised. What is evident for many is that, it is not Mr Ogundipe that is on trial here but Nigeria’s rule of law and the survival of the Fourth Estate of the Realm including its vulnerable sources which keep tyranny in check and enhances freedom of expression.

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