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Confidential sources have helped journalists uncover government and corporate wrongdoing, but journalists can face jail or fines if they disobey court orders to reveal sources. They can also be sued by sources if they voluntarily publish their names. Reporters say that their sources will not speak out if journalists do not have a privilege to shield their identities. Critics say journalists should obey the same laws as other citizens. Professional ethics codes generally urge journalists to promise confidentiality cautiously but keep all promises.
Journalists in many nations enjoy qualified legal protection from forced disclosure of sources, but some authorities are reluctant to give privileges to unlicensed professionals. Constitutions in Argentina, Mozambique, and Sweden specifically protect journalists’ rights to keep sources confidential. General evidence or procedure codes provide protection in Australia, Austria, El Salvador, France, Germany, Japan, and Norway. Russia and several former Soviet republics have specific mass media laws that protect source confidentiality.
In Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States, journalists’ rights to conceal source identities mostly rely on judicial interpretations of constitutional or statutory free press guarantees. The European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia also have recognized qualified privileges for journalists.
One unresolved issue is whether nontraditional journalists, such as bloggers, are protected under laws designed to protect mainstream media employees. The debate focuses on whether legal protection should be defined by function or employment status.
- Martin, J. A., Caramanica, M. R, & Fargo, A. L. (2011). Anonymous speakers and confidential sources: Using shield laws when they overlap online. Communication Law and Policy, 16, 89–125.
- Weaver, D. (1998). Journalists around the world: Commonalities and differences. In D. H. Weaver (ed.), The global journalist: News people around the world. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 455–480.
- Youm, K. H. (2006). International and comparative law on the journalist’s privilege: The Randal case as a lesson for the American press. Journal of International Media and Entertainment Law, 1, 1–56.