News / 01.04.2009

A committee proposes legislation that strips protection of journalists’ sources

By Linus Atarah

In such cases the journalist could no longer be covered by the legal protection of the source which is guaranteed in current legislation and could be forced by court action to reveal his or her source of information even in preliminary investigations before the case reaches the courts for trial.

The commission justifies its proposals arguing that the publication of certain information can be damaging to individuals who would have little chance ever knowing the source of such information and therefore could not claim compensation for damages.

“The purpose is to make it possible to blow the cover of the source in cases where the original informer is probably guilty of breach of confidentiality”, says the commission. Another condition would be that uncovering the source is indispensable for resolving a crime of very serious nature.

The current legislation allows for uncovering the source of a journalist in preliminary investigation only in criminal cases which carries mandatory minimum of six years, imprisonment upon conviction. Such cases include robbery aggravated violence and serious narcotic drug-related crimes.

Predictably the proposals have got journalists here arching their backs. President of the Union of Journalists in Finland, Arto Nieminen has strongly lashed out at the proposals, describing them as “unbelievable”.

”Protection of confidential sources of journalists is a cornerstone in free flow of information. Journalists and media organisations have to be certain that media freedom is secured and that a journalist’s source can be sure that protection of the source is faultless. Otherwise the media are incapable of performing their indispensable role as trusted disseminators of information in a democratic system”, said Nieminen.

According to Nieminen, lurking in the background of the idea of uncovering a journalist’s source is precisely in those stories whose publication has exceptionally wide interests, in other words, it is a bid to protect the elite.

“The protection of journalists’ source is a central part of Finland’s robust freedom of speech. Why should that be weakened”, asked Janne Virkkunen, Chief Editor of the biggest circulating daily Helsingin Sanomat and President of International Press Institute (IPI). “Journalists’ sources should be able to trust that source protection is crystal clear in Finland”, he said.

Päivi Tiilikka, a media law expert at the University of Helsinki said the proposals would diminish the possibilities of journalists to obtain information and through that the public’s right to information.

According to Tiilikka, the proposal should include an exemption that if publishing the information is in the vital interest of the public, then a journalist should not be compelled to reveal her or his source.

The problem has raised so much passion among media practitioners here that the Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen had to weigh in to ask for restrain. The Prime Minister says he would like to see a round of comments on the issue and after that it could be determined whether such an action would be taken.

“There is undoubtedly a problem but does its solution need such harsh measures as has been proposed in the Commission’s report?” asked Vanhanen.

The Minister of Justice Tuija Brax, also sought to assuage the fears – but with some amount of caution saying the final outcome in legislation may not be an exact reflection of the commission’s report.

“The protection of journalists’ sources has a significant role in controlling people in power. It remains to be seen however, whether there is a formulation in the legislation proposals which does not exclude sources which have go do with control of political or administrative actors”.

Tiilikka suggests that one reason for the commission’s proposal is that it had come to the notice of the Parliamentary Ombudsman that the police had revealed certain pieces information on which there was no way of verifying the source. Such uncontrolled revelation of information may jeopardise individuals’ privacy and their human rights.

But according to her, the commission’s report is only preliminary and still has a long distance to travel before becoming a law.

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