Do we need laws to protect journalists’ anonymous sources?  This was the central question posed at a round table discussion initiated by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and held at the headquarters of the NUJ on Tuesday 21 September. Attended by journalists from continental Europe, Ireland and the UK, the meeting recognised that in the absence of adequate legal protection, journalists were either forced to disclose their sources or face legal sanctions including fines and even imprisonment. This had significant consequences on the ability of journalists to use such sources to perform their ‘watchdog role’ on behalf of the public. Here in the UK and Northern Ireland journalists and the NUJ have a good track record in protecting sources, but this is due to our own efforts and campaigning rather than to the law.

Speaking at the meeting, journalist Bill Goodwin outlined the background to his case against disclosure.  This was supported by the NUJ in a seven year struggle against a fine of £5,000 for contempt of court (i.e. refusing to reveal his source). Finally in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found in favour of Goodwin and against the English courts. The judgement was based on the interpretation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The article says restrictions on free speech were not valid unless they are necessary in a democratic society. The judges declared that “the watchdog role of the press is vital to democratic society” and the case became a landmark judgment (although to this day UK law has never been changed).

Although this protection has been reinforced by other judgements of the ECHR, a number of participants highlighted continued attacks on the right to protect sources and the increasing use of communication interception techniques and other types of surveillance by the authorities to get information about journalists’ sources, often without the journalists themselves being aware of the intrusion. The need to raise awareness and means of countering such activities was discussed and it was pointed out that in Belgium the law on protection of sources prohibited the use of ‘any detection measure or investigative measure’.

As worrying, especially in Northern Ireland, has been the trend for police to search and seize journalists’ material under ‘anti-terror’ law. Although the UK government has scrapped the use of section 44 of the 2000 Act, following the recent ECHR ruling, it is not clear whether they will repeal anti-terror legislation which enables the authorities to threaten journalists into revealing confidential and anonymous sources.

Guest speaker and Swedish Social Democrat MP Morgan Johansson spoke of the work currently being done by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on protection of sources. He said that European nation states have been increasingly aggressive in pursuing journalists’ confidential sources and whistleblowers. Its effect was to strangle journalism, leaving the public less and less informed. As Rapporteur of a report on protection of journalists’ sources to the Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Science and Education, he believed that the issue was also one of media freedom and his committee’s report was being finalised and should be discussed by the Assembly in January 2011. Among its draft recommendations was one calling on member states without legal protection specifying the right of journalists not to disclose their sources to pass permissive legislation.

Following this useful and informative meeting, it is now up to EFJ affiliated unions to discuss their next moves. Meantime the outcome of the round table meeting will also be discussed at the next meeting of the EFJ steering committee (of which I am a member) in Brussels on 20/21 October and progress will no doubt be posted on the EFJ website at: http://europe.ifj.org/en