The latest study done by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers — WAN-IFRA — takes a hard look at one of the least explored, but crucial areas of journalism. It is about protecting journalism sources in the digital age. When digital platforms started to disturb the structures of legacy media, media scholars looked at the issues of content, revenue streams and citizens as journalists. The thrust of various exercises was to find a way for coexistence between different platforms. How to make the new media responsive to the core values and cardinal principles of journalism? How to create standards for user-generated content? How to curate the plenitude of digital content and arrive at a narrative that gives a fair and comprehensive picture? How to deal with hate speech that can be masked by good prose? What should be done about the comment section — should it be moderated or not? If the idea is to moderate and retain a semblance of editorial control, what are the relative merits of prepublication moderation and the post-publication moderation?
The veteran British journalist and media scholar, George Brock, in his book, Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, dealt with the changes that have happened over the last 20 years.He rightly-located journalism at ‘the intersection between a social, democratic purpose and the market’. The biggest takeaway from this book is: “The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or State support.” The challenges were not restricted to business models.
The sentencing of Bradley Manning, the forced exile of Edward Snowden and the confinement of Julian Assange raised the important question of protecting the journalists’ sources in the digital age. The World Editors Forum, within the WAN-IFRA, was asked by UNESCO to study the state of journalistic source protection. The study covered 121 countries and its key finding was that the ‘acts of journalism should be shielded from targeted surveillance, data retention and handover of material connected to confidential sources.’
The preliminary findings were released last week at the World News Media Congress in Washington DC. According to the study, though more than 100 countries had one form of legal framework or other for source protection; it was undermined due to a range of factors. The study listed four main reasons for ineffectiveness of the source protection framework: “A) Eroded by national security and anti-terrorism legislation. B) Undercut by surveillance both mass and targeted. C) Jeopardized by mandatory data retention policies and pressure applied to third party intermediaries (like ISPs, telcos, search engines, social media platforms) to release data. D) Outdated when it comes to regulating the collection and use of digital data. Examples include: the admissibility, in court, of information recorded without consent between a journalist and a source; the extent to which existing source protection laws also cover digitally stored material gathered by journalistic actors.”
The study also listed a number of fallouts of compromising source protection: Prepublication exposure of journalistic investigations which may trigger cover-ups, intimidation, or destruction of information, ‘revelation of sources’’ identities with legal or extralegal repercussions on them, sources of information running dry, self-censorship by journalists and citizens more broadly.
The WAN-IFRA study has come up with four crucial conditions for source protection. 1) Systems for transparency and accountability regarding data retention policies and surveillance (including both mass surveillance and targeted surveillance) — as recommended by the UN General Assembly. 2) Steps taken by UNESCO States to adopt, update and strengthen source protection laws and their implementation for the digital era. 3) Training of journalistic actors in digital safety and security tactics. 4) Efforts to educate the public and sources in secure digital communications.
The crucial outcome of the study is a 11-point framework for assessing source protection in the digital era. It asks the nations to recognize the value to public interest of source protection, with its legal foundation in the right to freedom of expression (including press freedom), and to privacy. The study expects source protection to extend to all acts of journalism across all platforms, services and mediums, and that it includes digital data and metadata. It wants not just state actors but also powerful corporate actors who capture journalistic digital data to treat it confidentially and acknowledge the desirability of the storage and use of such data being consistent with the general right to privacy. It urges the nation-states and other players to define exceptions to the rules very narrowly to preserve the principle of source protection as the effective norm and standard.
The full study will be published later this year. It may be premature to celebrate its recommendation without knowing the response of various governments to it. Many of the contentious issues surrounding the digital world — such as net neutrality and privacy — are yet to be resolved. There is a possibility that protecting journalists’ sources may join the unresolved list despite the study.