Journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to safeguard the anonymity of their sources due to the increasing surveillance of online and phone conversations, according to a major new study by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) at London University.
The report, Protecting sources and whistleblowers in a digital age, by Dr Judith Townend and Dr Richard Danbury, says whistleblowers need better legal protection since they are far easier to identify in the digital era and successive laws have undermined their status.
Earlier this month, a Law Commission review of the Official Secrets Acts proposed increased prison sentences for leaking official information and rejected the idea of providing a public interest defence.
The National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct stresses the importance of protecting the anonymity of confidential sources – and reporters have risked jail rather than reveal who gave them information for stories on matters of public interest. Following lobbying by the NUJ, the recently reformed clause 37 of the Digital Economy Bill allows a defence for publication in the public interest. The IALS report, however, suggests that it is uncertain how this defence will be interpreted by the courts.
The findings of the report (which is supported by the Guardian) are based on discussions with 25 investigative journalists, representatives from relevant NGOs and media organisations, media lawyers and specialist researchers.
A government spokesperson said: ‘Far from weakening protections for sources as this report suggests, this government has strengthened safeguards through the Investigatory Powers Act. Now any public body seeking to use communications data to identify a journalist’s source must first gain approval from a senior judge. We believe in the freedom of the press, and would never do anything to undermine legitimate whistleblowing or investigative journalism – it’s not government policy and never will be.’