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EDITORIAL: Sources that are sacred

BEA DOTTIN, [email protected]

EDITORIAL: Sources that are sacred

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The role of the Press is once again under the spotlight, and this time most seriously. In recent weeks, in Trinidad and Tobago, 20 police officers have gone in force to a private television station in search of a video that had been aired.
The police were armed not only with a search warrant, but with weapons.
The video purportedly contained images of a mentally disabled 13-year-old girl being sexually assaulted, and the officers’ search was to find the video to see if the broadcaster had broken the law by showing these images on television.
A senior policeman was quoted as saying he was shocked by the number of officers who went to the station to execute the search warrant, but denied that the action was an attack on Press freedom. The International Press Institute’s executive director, on the other hand, thought that such action might have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.
In the past fortnight, in London, journalists at the SUN newspaper have been arrested in raids carried out at the “crack of dawn” and most “chilling” of all, their sources of information have been disclosed.
We need to make it clear that we do not support illegal activities in the pursuit of any story. Legitimate investigation is our creed, and it seems that in Britain the investigation in the “hacking scandal” may have unearthed illegal behaviour at the News Of The World, which journal has been closed. Some public officials may have been paid money to divulge information in breach of the anti-corruption laws.
But the profession of journalism is not just an ordinary enterprise. The Press carries the heavy task of holding the feet of men and women of power to the fire, and while not even journalists are above the law, the identity of journalistic sources must be seriously protected and respected even by the law-making and law enforcement authorities.
Some of the most outrageous breaches of the law by the politically powerful have been exposed by journalists only because they had sources who were prepared to speak anonymously and off the record to trusted journalists.
The Watergate scandal in which an incumbent president of the United States was implicated in lawbreaking would never have seen the light of day, but for the persistence of the source “Deep Throat”, who delivered accurate information to the investigative journalists who broke the story of the burglary at the Watergate Building.
It bears repetition too that the recent MPs’ expense scandal in the British Parliament was disclosed only through the use of a source prepared to hand over the data about fraudulent claims by lawmakers to the Press.
Such legitimate investigative journalism is manifestly in the public interest, and the society is the poorer if it does not recognize and protect the source of the law-abiding journalist.
Press freedom is at one a parochial and an international concern. No man is an island, and the ethical role of the Press as a constantly enquiring partner in the process of good governance is as much the business of the person on the London streets as it is that of the Caribbean citizen in Port of Spain or Bridgetown.
The need to root out undesirable practices in our profession or any other is a continuing necessity, and the political environment, powerful as it might be, is not beyond the reach of enquiry.
Heavily armed police search parties, and arrests at dawn – even when justified – may have the most chilling effect on the most ethical of journalists. It is worth thinking on.
In such recurrent circumstances, abuse of political power could flourish without restraint from legitimate scrutiny.