Protecting journalistic sources

IT has been reported that Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali is mulling stiffer penalties for those who ‘leak’ official secrets. The reason for this, according to him, is that official secrets are purportedly leaked and reported by the media quoting sources.  

The A-G was also reported to have said that journalists, who refused to disclose their sources due to their journalistic ethics, could be considered as collaborating with potential saboteurs.  

“We may charge journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.  

“I am not joking. If I obtain 90% of evidence, I will charge the journalist, editor, assistant editor and editor-in-chief. I am serious, no kidding. We have too many cases of secrets being leaked in Malaysia.”  

The statements by the A-G are shocking.  

Despite the fact that the biggest problem we as a society face today can be attributed to corruption, the A-G has instead focused on what he terms as “leaking official secrets”.  

If we are serious about combating corruption, whistleblowers must be protected, instead of prosecuted. If we do not protect whistleblowers, they will not come forward with the information that they possess.  

If these people do not come forward with information that they possess, wrongdoings within the organisation may never be known.  

While it may be so that the disclosure of information by the whistleblower may run afoul of the law, our authorities should prioritise investigations on the wrongdoing that has been exposed instead of investigating and prosecuting the whistleblower.  

To even consider stiffer penalties, including life imprisonment, for whistleblowers is proof that the Executive arm of the State is not serious about combating corruption.  

The A-G was also reported to have said that in China, leaking official secrets carries the death sentence.  

The chief legal adviser to the Government should also already know that in communist China, corruption is also a serious offence and in some cases, will result in the death sentence.  

Even more shocking is veiled threat that the A-G made to journalists and editors who do not reveal their sources.  

Protection of journalistic sources is an important ethical principle for journalists.  

For example, the Code of Professional Conduct by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) states that a journalist must observe professional secret regarding the source of information obtained in confidence.  

Yes, the Code of Professional Conduct is not legally binding on journalists in the country, but it shows the importance placed on the protection of journalistic sources in the profession.  

A journalist may sometimes obtain sensitive information from his or her sources. The source may be an insider who can give accurate and true information.  

If the identity of the source is disclosed, it may adversely affect the source. The source may not want to disclose the information if he or she is not protected.  

There are numerous judicial precedents, both within and outside of our jurisdiction, that recognise that journalistic sources should protected. This writer knows of at least two cases in Malaysia in which the courts have recognised the importance of such protection.  

If journalists are forced to reveal their sources, it would be contrary to his or her right to livelihood, encapsulated within the constitutional right to life. It would undermine the journalists’ professionalism, ethics and confidence.  

By making those statements, the A-G appears to be telling journalists that he cares little about their ethical principles.  

Organisations that represent the interests of journalists, both within the country and abroad, must view this threat as a direct assault on the principles of journalism. They must speak up and tell the A-G that he should not make light of what they hold to be of major importance.  

If they do not do so now, it may be too late.  We have already joined a long list of countries that detain journalists.  

Do we want to also join the list of countries that “punish” journalists with imprisonment for doing their jobs?

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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