The right not to reveal journalistic sources

The protection of journalistic sources is one of the key rights that journalists have in order to exercise their freedom of expression and to fulfil their function as a ‘’public watchdog”.

Without such protection, journalists’ sources may refrain from helping them to fulfil their function. Journalists have this right regardless of whether their sources obtained the information legally or illegally.

The right not to reveal their sources protects journalists not only from specific orders to reveal the name of the source, but also from actions by the police or some other public authority which could lead to the identification of the source.

example The police cannot order a journalist to provide documents containing a lead to the identification of the source, listen in on a journalist’s phone conversations or search his/her house and data storage devices.

However, the secrecy of journalistic sources is not absolute and can be restricted in exceptional circumstances:

Restrictions

A journalist may be required to reveal his/her sources only in exceptional circumstances, if it is needed to protect a vital interest. 

example The need to identify the person (source) who leaked a company’s confidential corporate plan or information in a highly sensitive criminal case, would not automatically be considered to be in the overriding public interest, justifying the disclosure of journalistic sources.   

Any interference with the secrecy of a journalist’s sources must be treated with utmost caution. There should be adequate legal safeguards to prevent the authorities from abusing such exceptions.

The order to reveal a source should be made only by an investigative judge in criminal proceedings after careful consideration of all involved interests. In making his/her decision the judge should consider such factors as:

  • whether the information required is related to a serious crime, such as child abuse, and can lead to the identification of the offender
  • whether there are no other ways (sources) to discover the perpetrator

The judge, in his/her decision, must explain why an interest in discovering the source of information overrides the journalist’s freedom of expression and secrecy of their sources.

How to complain

If you consider that the investigative judge’s order to disclose a source is disproportional and does not balance all involved interests, you should appeal it to a higher court. The procedure and time limits of the appeal must be included in the decision.

The higher court should examine your complaint in a written procedure within 10 days. The decision of the higher court is final.

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