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Dangerous journalism – new threats to journalism in the Middle East: @MartinChulov #jeraa2015

By MARK PEARSON

Almost every nation in the Middle East has the surveillance capability rivaling that of the Five Eyes group of countries, Guardian Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov (@MartinChulov) told the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia 40th anniversary conference in Bathurst today (November 30).

The Guardian's Martin Chulov addressing #jeraa15

The Guardian‘s Martin Chulov addressing #jeraa2015

“The digital dragnet is very much a tool of persecution,” he said.

He explained how the Internet and social media in the region had shifted from communication forms of change and liberation to tools of suppression.

“Regimes simply ended up doing social media better than the young activists in the region,” he said.

This presented enormous risks to journalists and their sources.

He said journalists now faced risks they had not previously when they were viewed as non-combatants.

“We can no longer afford to be naïve,” he said.

“I’ve often found myself being in a situation where you don’t have the access of your organisation and are relying on your wits.

“We have to be very careful in calculating when to push forward and when to go back.”

Chulov said propaganda issued by Middle Eastern states was also a major risk to truth-telling about the region.

“There are far too many journalists in the region – even veteran correspondents – whose work is no more than dogma,” he said.

“I’ve lost count of the number of young reporters who have told me how disillusioned they have become with journalists who were once their heroes.

“Conflict reporting is not simply about muddying the waters. We should never be afraid of fact, no matter where it may lead us.”

Source protection had become a major issue. He said one of his sources was a senior figure in Islamic State.

“There has been no digital communication at all. We have to beware of street cameras and any digital communication at all.

“Every time I do go to see him I have to wonder whether it is going to be the last time for him and potentially the last time for me.

“Of course shrouding ourselves in secrecy does nothing to dispel the notion we are not spies in the first place.

“I’m on the bad boy list but I haven’t been hit so far. But I do try to ensure not everything I try to transmit is not secure.” This avoids a detectable regime.

Journalists also faced attacks on their reputations.

“If truth be told, it sometimes works,” he said.

“All of us who have covered the region for a living have regularly woken up to Twitter feeds full of bile.”

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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UNESCO study by @julieposetti uses research to shed light on source protection in the surveillance era

 

By MARK PEARSON

UNESCO’s flagship publication World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development was launched in Paris, London and New York this week, as part of events marking the International Day to End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists.

SOURCES BOOK COVERIt features an important chapter highlighting 13 key recommendations from a global study on the protection of journalism sources in the digital age – ably chaired and written by University of Wollongong journalism educator Julie Posetti during her World Editors Forum/WAN-IFRA Research Fellowship in 2014-2015.

As the World Trends publication explains, the ‘Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age’ study draws on research covering 121 UNESCO Member States, updating an earlier study of these countries by the NGO Privacy International in 2007.

The chapter shows how legal frameworks that support protection of journalistic sources, at international, regional and national levels, have come under substantial strain since then.

“They are increasingly at risk of erosion, restriction and compromise,” the report notes.

“This is a trend that signifies a direct challenge to the established universal human rights of freedom of expression and privacy, and one that constitutes a particular threat to the sustainability of investigative journalism.

“A recommendation for consideration from this research is the proposal of an 11-point research tool for assessing the effectiveness of legal source protection frameworks in the digital age.”

The Posetti study draws on surveys and long form interviews involving nearly 200 international experts from the fields of law, journalism, digital communications and civil society organisations.

Academics from Australia (Posetti and UoW colleague Marcus O’Donnell), Brazil and China contributed to the study, along with 11 research assistants from a range of countries.

I was honoured to serve on the eight-member international advisory panel. Other advisory panellists were: Julie Reid, Media Studies Senior Lecturer, Department of Communication Science, UNISA (University of South Africa); Lillian Nalwoga, President, Internet Society’s Uganda Chapter; Policy Officer, Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA); Dan Gillmor, Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; Prisca Orsonneau, Lawyer at the Paris Bar, specializing in Media Law and Human Rights; Chair, Reporters Without Borders Legal Committee; Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director, Southeast Asian Press Alliance; Mario Calabresi, Editor-in-Chief, La Stampa; and Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre and SFLC.in.

Julie Posetti advises the full study will be published by UNESCO early next year but meanwhile she has blogged about the chapter in the World Trends Report here: http://blog.wan-ifra.org/node/16301. However, she has supplied these  13 recommendations and findings:

1. 84 UNESCO Member States out of 121 studied (69 per cent) for this report demonstrated noteworthy developments, mainly with negative impact, concerning journalistic source protection between 2007 and mid-2015
2. The issue of source protection has come to intersect with the issues of mass surveillance, targeted surveillance, data retention, the spill-over effects of anti- terrorism/national security legislation, and the role of third party internet companies known as ‘intermediaries’
3. Legal and regulatory protections for journalists’ sources are increasingly at risk of erosion, restriction and compromise
4. Without substantial strengthening of legal protections and limitations on surveillance and data retention, investigative journalism that relies on confidential sources will be difficult to sustain in the digital era, and reporting in many other cases will encounter inhibitions on the part of potential sources
5. Transparency and accountability regarding both mass and targeted surveillance, and data retention, are critically important if confidential sources are to be able to continue to confidently make contact with journalists
6. Individual states face a need to introduce or update source protection laws
7. It is recommended to define ‘acts of journalism’, as distinct from the role of ‘journalist’, in determining who can benefit from source protection laws
8. To optimise benefits, source protection laws should be strengthened in tandem with legal protections extended to whistle-blowers, who constitute a significant set of confidential journalistic sources
9. Source protection laws need to cover journalistic processes and communications with confidential sources – including telephone calls, social media, and emails – along with published journalism that depends on confidential sources
10. Journalists are increasingly adapting their practice in an effort to partially shield their sources from exposure, but threats to anonymity and encryption undermine these adaptations
11. The financial cost of the digital era source protection threat is very significant (in terms of digital security tools, training, and legal advice), as is its impact on the production and scope of investigative journalism based on confidential sources
12. There is a need to educate journalists and civil society actors in digital safety
13. Journalists, and others who rely on confidential sources to report in the public interest, may need to train their sources in secure methods of contact and information-sharing

Importantly, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development contains three other chapters on important media issues:

Countering Online Hate Speech provides a global overview of the dynamics of hate speech online and some of the measures that have been adopted to counteract and mitigate it, highlighting trends in good practices that have emerged at the local and global levels. There is a comprehensive analysis of the international, regional and national normative frameworks developed to address hate speech online, and their repercussions for freedom of expression, and there is emphasis on social and non-regulatory mechanisms that may be considered to help to counter the production, dissemination and impact of hateful messages online.

Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries sheds light on internet intermediaries – the services that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression. It shows how they both foster and restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances, technologies and business models. The report states: “According to the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, while states have the primary duty to protect human rights, businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and both should play a role in providing remedy to those whose rights have been violated. This chapter applies the ‘protect, respect, and remedy’ framework to the policies and practices of companies representing three intermediary types (internet service providers, search engines, and social networking platforms) across 10 countries. The three case studies highlight challenges and opportunities for different types of intermediaries within the trend of their increasing importance.”

Safety of Journalists examines recent trends in the safety of journalists, presenting UNESCO statistics for 2013 and 2014, and tracking other developments up to August 2015. The report explains: “It follows the framework of the previous UNESCO report World Trends report, including physical safety, impunity, imprisonment of journalists, and a gender dimension of the issues. Additionally, the chapter examines the unprecedented trend of the strengthening of normative international standards, as well as new developments in practical mechanisms, improvement in UN inter-agency cooperation, greater collaboration with the judiciary system and security forces, and research interest in the subject.”

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Investigative reporter and foreign correspondent Jess Hill (@jessradio) talks media law and censorship

By MARK PEARSON

We were honoured to have investigative reporter and former Middle East correspondent Jess Hill (@jessradio) visit Griffith University to talk about foreign correspondence and the use of social media in journalism.

She was obliging enough to agree to this studio interview with me on media law, censorship and freedom of the press.

Thanks to Bevan Bache and Ashil Ranpara for their camera work, production and technical support.

[Recorded 2.4.14, 11:13 mins].

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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An argument for more open courts in the digital era

By MARK PEARSON

My submission in response to the Supreme Court of Queensland’s comprehensive issues paper Electronic Publication of Court Proceedings argues that the advent of digital technologies means the courts should be more open to the public than ever before.

A committee of judges of the Supreme Court released the issues paper in June, seeking views on the potential for the audio-visual recording of court proceedings and possible livestreaming or broadcast of all or part of the proceedings.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 3.47.25 pm

Whatever the outcome of the process, the report stands as an excellent contribution to the literature in the field and a useful resource for students and academics for its comparative and comprehensive coverage of the topic and for the currency of the material.

It backgrounded the fundamental principles of both open justice and the right to a fair trial before considering the potential impact of electronic publication on various personnel, particularly jurors, witnesses and judges. It reported upon international and interstate developments in the field and discussed recent experiences in both Queensland and other jurisdictions where some level of recording or publication has been permitted.

The ultimate outcome of the process will inevitably also be influenced by both human and technical resources available for recording, editing and courtroom management of the logistics.

My own submission was relatively brief and addressed a select few of the issues and suggested one approach for a way forward fully embracing open justice in the digital era.

  1. Changing notion of open justice for the public and the media

The issues paper addressed the principle of open justice  and quite rightly highlights the importance of proceedings being conducted in open court. It portrayed the media’s right to report upon proceedings as “an adjunct of the right to attend court”, using the oft-quoted expression of the media being the “eyes and the ears” of the general public in the courtroom.

While this traditional approach holds true, the advent of the Internet and social media mean that there are now many more “eyes and ears” of the general public witnessing and relaying information about court processes than there were in days of yore. Ordinary citizens, bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ offer their own versions of courtroom events via microblogs on Facebook and Twitter as well as through extended blogging and commentary media.

Thus I suggested there were two key questions that could help shape the court’s deliberations:

  1. Does modern technology provide a cheap and simple mechanism for streaming ALL court rooms via a single website or interface? and
  2. Should the mainstream news media be privileged in certain situations by being allowed to film in the courtroom and broadcast sections of such footage?

The first question turned the tables on much of the report which seemed preoccupied with reasons for restricting access and publication. My question suggested the default situation should be to allow as much public access to court proceedings as possible so that citizens could ‘virtually’ visit a courtroom just as easily as they might attend physically. It suggested that, just as all citizens might wander randomly into a public court in session in the Supreme Court building, citizens should be able to tune in online to those same proceedings from the comfort and convenience of a remote location. The final point of my submission suggested a system for making this possible. My own view is that recording more generally in society has become ubiquitous and that its potential to impact on judges and potential witnesses would be minimal given a. the extent to which people realise their words and behaviour are now being recorded in all walks of life; and b. the fact that wholesale livestreaming of all courts would be accommodated as a basic procedure – just an accepted facet of what is done there.

My second question positions the mainstream media as a select group with special commercial and public interest needs for providing their audiences with edited footage in cases with a high level of newsworthiness. As explained below, such a level of access can be addressed on a case by case basis and the presiding judge could indeed retain the discretion on the level of access allowed and the conditions of its use.

  1. Concerns over selective reportage

On several occasions the paper expresses concern over the potential for the media’s highly selective use of camera angles, audio and sections of proceedings. I suggest this is the very nature of the news media and the government, the executive and the judiciary have voiced concern at this phenomenon in the centuries since the media first took on the role as the Fourth Estate in a democracy. It is the price for media freedom in systems where editors and news directors (rather than politicians and judges) decide upon the newsworthiness of a story. There are already numerous devices available to the courts to address the potential for sensationalised or inaccurate reporting in the domain of contempt of court (in its sub judice, disobedience and scandalising iterations) and via the loss of the fair and accurate reporting defence to resulting defamation actions. Further, media outlets need to be aware that such privileges might be withdrawn for selected outlets if they are not accompanied by the due level of responsibility detailed by the presiding judge in the granting of such permissions.

  1. Production standards required for mainstream media

While all mainstream media would prefer the highest quality of recorded material, all news media now broadcast both online and on radio and television much more citizen-generated content which is sometimes of the poorest amateur quality. The news priority of the material now takes precedence over the production quality of the audio and vision. Highly blurred and pixellated material now finds its way into even the most expensively produced programs if that is the only actuality available to help tell a compelling story. This means that if the general livestreaming option is the only one available to the media, and if they are allowed to record and rebroadcast it, then they will do so if the material is newsworthy enough.

  1. A relatively cheap and simple system of implementation

This preliminary discussion backgrounds my very simple proposal which I believe would address both the need for open justice and the concerns over the potential for interference with the administration of justice and the opportunity for accused persons to get a fair trial. It is as follows:

  1. Install inexpensive webcams in all courtrooms showing only the judge in the frame.
  2. Livestream all courtrooms using this single camera angle to a designated court website where citizens can access any courtroom at any time.
  3. Feature the kind of alert light found in radio studios positioned prominently inside and outside the courtroom to light with the sign “Court open and broadcasting”.
  4. Install a similar light and sign at the bench so the judge can control whether the recording is on or off (ie, whether the court is open or closed) and personnel are advised accordingly.
  5. Deal with mainstream media requests for special permission to film proceedings on a case by case basis, with the presiding judge determining the conditions attached to any permissions.
  6. Restrictions: As detailed above, my own view is that there are measures available to the courts to address any misreporting or sensationalised reporting based on the livestreamed material. However, if the court were concerned at the potential for the selective recording and rebroadcasting of any of the material it could feature an on-screen warning “© Supreme Court of Queensland: Not to be recorded or rebroadcast without the permission of the presiding judge”.

In short, this simple and relatively inexpensive solution would dispense with the need for editing because the livestreaming control would rest simply with the judge’s decision on whether to close or open the court for the complete trial (or for a given segment).

It would allow a mechanism for justice to be truly ‘open’ – both in the physical courtroom and in the virtual one – with all the ensuing public benefits of education and allowing justice to be seen to be done.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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How reliable are world press freedom indices?

By MARK PEARSON

The recent special edition of Pacific Journalism Review included an article I co-authored with Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez (@DrJM_Fernandez) from Curtin University looking at censorship in Australia.

It was titled “Censorship in Australia: Intrusions into media freedom flying beneath the international free expression radar.”

Part of the article considered the reliability of world press indices collated each year by international organisations like Reporters Without Borders and the Freedom Forum.

Here is a short abridged extract of our article to give you a background to the RSF approach and a sense of our argument:

Two main media freedom indices are cited internationally as indicators of the relative state of press freedom and free expression internationally. They are issued by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF – Reporters Without Borders) and by the US-based Freedom House. Each has fine-tuned its rankings system over time and we summarise their methodologies here. The RSF World Press Freedom Index was first published in 2002. On its launch it explained:

The index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions about the whole range of press freedom violations (such as murders or arrests of journalists, censorship, pressure, state monopolies in various fields, punishment of press law offences and regulation of the media). The final list includes 139 countries. The others were not included in the absence of reliable information (RSF, 2002a).

It went on to detail its methodology as essentially a qualitative one based on its contacts in each country assessed and its headquarters staff. The index measured the ‘amount of [media] freedom’ in each country and the respective governments’ efforts to observe that freedom (RSF, 2002b). Its questionnaire sought details on: direct attacks on journalists (e.g. murders, imprisonment, physical assaults and threats) and on the media (e.g. censorship, confiscation, searches and other pressure); the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such violations; the legal environment for the media (e.g. punishment for press offences, state monopoly and existence of a regulatory body); the state’s behavior towards the public media and the foreign press; threats to information flow on the Internet; and the activities of armed movements and other groups that threaten press freedom (ibid).

Clearly, RSF’s emphasis from that early stage was on clear physical threats against journalists and major legal measures taken against the media in the surveyed countries. Australia ranked 12 out of 139 countries ranked in that first survey. New Zealand and other Pacific Island nations were not ranked because of a lack of information collected on them. The following year New Zealand debuted at position 17, while Australia had been demoted to 50 of 166 nations ranked (RSF, 2003).

RSF changed its ranking methodology significantly in 2013, when it ranked Australia at 28 out of 179 countries, and it is that revised approach which will be used for our discussion here about the potential assessment of Australia’s performance. It explained a shift to a new questionnaire and approach, with Paris-based staff quantifying the numbers of journalists killed, jailed, exiled, attacked or arrested, and the number of outlets directly censored (RSF, 2013). Other important criteria formed the basis of questionnaires sent to outside experts and members of the RSF network, including ‘the degree to which news providers censor themselves, government interference in editorial content, or the transparency of government decision-making’. Legislation and its effectiveness, concentration of media ownership, favouritism in subsidies and state advertising and discrimination in access to journalism and training were the subject of more detailed questions (RSF, 2013).

RSF then uses a complex algorithm to assign a score out of 100 to every country, drawing first on six general criteria of pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure; and then factoring in a special ‘violence score’ with a weighting of 20 per cent, calculated using a formula taking account of violence against journalists in the following declining weightings: death of journalists, imprisonments, kidnappings, media outlets attacked and ransacked, journalists who have fled the country, arrests, and attacks (RSF, 2013). An additional co-efficient takes account of respect for freedom of information in a foreign territory. In short, the algorithm strives to add quantitative mathematical rigour to a process that is largely qualitative, with a stronger weighting on acts of violence than upon legislative and systemic anti-media features. The approach incorporates difficult and problematic comparisons of the value of the murder of a journalist vis a vis laws of censorship.

[The article then backgrounds the Freedom House ‘Freedom of the Press’ reports methodology.]

The respective RSF and Freedom House indices are cited internationally in political speeches and academic works (Burgess, 2010, p. 4). For example, Belgian scholar Dirk Voorhoof linked high media freedom rankings with global reputation for human rights protection when he wrote:… the countries with a high level of press freedom, as shown in the international ratings of Reporters without Borders (RSF) or Freedom House, are countries in which democracy, transparency, respect for human rights and the rule of law is strongly rooted, institutionalised and integrated in society (2009).

However, despite assurances from both RSF and Freedom House that their reports and indices were undertaken with independence and rigor, they have come in for criticism from some quarters. For example, Schönfeld (2014) took issue with Russia’s rankings in both indices on the basis of a potential Western bias. She cited rumours that the Freedom House index was sponsored by the US government (p. 99):

The whole questionnaire presumes a comprehensive concept of media freedom, claiming that the media have to be embedded in a democratic society (p. 100).

She raised similar concerns about the RSF index, again citing a rumour that ‘the organisation contents itself with three or four completed questionnaires per country to the same target group’ (p. 100). She drew comparisons between the RSF and Freedom House approaches:

The conformity between these two indices is not astonishing, as the underlying concept of media freedom, methodology, and the target group are nearly the same (Schönfeld, 2014, p. 100).

Burgess (2010) canvassed the academic literature on media freedom indices and found a host of criticisms, including poor survey design, and recommended they ‘should continue to work to increase technical sophistication, validity across time, and transparency of sourcing, wherever possible without creating threats to the security of people who help in compiling them’ (Burgess, 2010, p. 50). Pearson (2012a) offered reasons as to why the RSF index could not be a precise scientific measure.

It could never be, given the enormous variables at stake, and has to rely on an element of expert qualitative judgment when making the final determinations of a country’s comparative ranking. If it was purely quantitative, for example, there would be an in-built bias against the world’s most populous countries because the sheer numbers of journalists and media organisations involved would increase the statistical likelihood media freedom breaches or incidents involving journalists.

Further, the individual rankings of countries in any particular year are subject to the performance of the nations above and below them. In fact, a country might well decline in the real state of its media freedom but be promoted in an index because of the even worse performance of countries ranked above it the year prior. As Burgess noted, however, the indices were cited widely on their release each year and thus represented a useful tool for promoting the value of media freedom internationally (Burgess, 2010, pp. 6-7). Pearson (2012a) stated:

Governments might take issue with the methodology and argue over their precise rankings, but the index draws on the energies and acumen of experts in RSF’s Paris headquarters and throughout the world; and is thus taken seriously in international circles. It serves to raise awareness about media and Internet freedom, which cannot be a bad thing in an age of government spin.

Of course, any press freedom index is really only a continuum because media freedom is not an absolute, scientifically measureable criterion and there is no haven of free expression or press freedom internationally. Indeed, established international instruments reflect the non-absolute nature of free speech. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has a right to freedom of expression (Article 19). However, this right is qualified. For example, Article 12 provides that noone no one shall be subjected to attacks upon ‘honour and reputation’. Likewise, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights qualifies the freedom of expression right in Article 19(2), with a provision stipulating that that freedom ‘carries with it special duties. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions…such as are provided by law and are necessary’.

Interested? Here is the citation for the full article. Order your PJR copy now.


Pearson, M., and Fernandez, J. M. (2015). Censorship in Australia: Intrusions into media freedom flying beneath the international free expression radar. Pacific Journalism Review, 21(1): 40-60.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Drones and media law and ethics in Australia – our #ANZCA2015 paper

By MARK PEARSON

Postgraduate student Sam Worboys produced some excellent work for his research project looking at the state of news media use of drones in Australia and the regulatory, legal and ethical implications. I have worked with Sam to develop this into a conference presentation at the Australia and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference in Queenstown, New Zealand, on July 8.

Image credit: Parrot AR Drone 2.0 – Wikimedia image

Image credit: Parrot AR Drone 2.0 – Wikimedia image

Abstract

‘Emerging dilemmas in the law and ethics of media use of ‘drones’ (unmanned aerial vehicles)’

Sam Worboys and Mark Pearson

Use of ‘drones’ [also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ (UASs) or ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ (RPA) ] by the news media has prompted a host of ethical, legal and regulatory dilemmas internationally. While they have clear utility as newsgathering devices, their operation triggers ethical dilemmas of public safety and privacy, legal issues of trespass, nuisance, privacy and confidentiality, and regulatory challenges for aviation authorities tasked with defining and policing their safe use in civil airspace. This paper surveys international developments in the journalistic use of drones and categorises the key ethical, legal and regulatory considerations before applying them to the Australian legal and regulatory context and mapping the prospects for news media use of drones in Australia. It reports on the emergence of a ‘two-tier’ regulatory system where hobbyists and citizen journalists can effectively fly their drones ‘under the regulatory radar’ and gather footage during unfolding news events where regulations preclude media outlets and other commercial operators from drone operation. The paper discusses the resulting legal and ethical questions over whether journalists should take advantage of this loophole by appropriating – and taking commercial advantage of – the footage captured by citizen journalists under the pretext of unrestricted non-commercial use.

An expanded and revised version of the paper will be published in an upcoming edition of Australian Journalism Review.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Watergate revisited: Is it fundamentally unethical to guarantee a source confidentiality?

A shorter version was published 22-6-15 in The Conversation as:

How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

By MARK PEARSON

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward famously used cloak and dagger methods to communicate with his secret source – “Deep Throat” – in the 1972 Watergate investigation which led to the Nixon administration’s downfall.

Woodward said he would move a pot plant on his balcony to signal to his confidential, high-level source that he wanted a meeting. If Deep Throat wanted a meeting, he would draw a clock face on page 20 of Woodward’s newspaper to indicate the time they should rendezvous in a disused underground car park.

These very 20th-century means of communication helped preserve the iconic source’s anonymity – until former FBI deputy director Mark Felt outed himself more than 30 years later.

It was significant, then, that Washington was the venue for the release of preliminary findings of a study by the University of Wollongong’s Julie Posetti into the threats to source confidentiality in a new era of sophisticated surveillance technologies and powers.

Leaving a trail

The study poses worrying questions about whether sources can ever be sure their communications with journalists remain confidential no matter how determined a reporter might be to protect them.

Journalists have a sacrosanct relationship with their confidential sources. It is enshrined in ethical codes internationally with some qualified protection under “shield laws” in Australia. Journalists don’t “rat” on their sources. In recent decades in Australia, three journalists have been jailed for refusing to reveal their sources in court – Tony Barrass, Joe Budd and Chris Nicholls.

Four decades on, in a digital era of surveillance and data storage, Watergate remains a useful yardstick for assessing the value of source confidentiality.

We can only speculate as to whether Woodward would have been able to preserve Deep Throat’s confidentiality with the surveillance tools and legislative reach agencies have at their disposal today. Some have argued that modern journalists need to return to those analogue means of communicating if they are to have a hope of protecting their sources, particularly when investigating national security, high-level corruption and matters embarrassing to governments.

Recently departed Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said:

I know investigative journalism happened before the invention of the phone, so I think maybe literally we’re going back to that age, when the only safe thing is face-to-face contact, brown envelopes, meetings in parks.

Associate editor at The Australian Cameron Stewart told me that investigative journalists had to leave their smartphones at the office when heading out to meet confidential sources. The 1970s Watergate methods were again becoming necessary.

However, following Woodward’s approach with Deep Throat would not, on its own, be enough in the digital surveillance era. CCTV footage and geolocation technology on mobile devices carried by either party could potentially link the journalist with their source.

As security expert Bruce Schneier explained, security agencies can also use device inactivity in a process of elimination to identify a source.

If they can account for the location of nine possible government sources’ phones over a set period – but the tenth has either been turned off for a long period or left at home – then that employee becomes the prime whistleblowing suspect. Despite their limitations, such primitive contact methods might make a one-off leak harder to trace than it would if there were email records and stored telco and internet provider metadata such as phone tower locations, call durations and IP addresses. These are all easily accessible under Australia’s new data retention laws. Stewart explained:

The thing I’ve got to my ear now [a smartphone] is your biggest enemy in every single sense, as the Snowden revelations have shown. The ability of authorities to track movements of journalists is really of great concern as far as protecting sources goes.

Veteran investigative journalist Ross Coulthart offered detailed insights into the detectable trail of communications between reporters and sources last month. He explained a major problem was the “first contact” from a whistleblower with a story.

If they contact me by phone or email now, though, I now warn them they’re compromised.

Coulthart also explained his use of encrypted communications and secure platforms in his efforts to disguise his contacts with sources or to expunge records of his contacts with sources. Guardian Australia’s Paul Farrell recently ran a masterclass on source and data protection for journalists teaching them about surveillance, encryption and freedom of information laws.

Paying the price

However, recent research by Curtin University associate professor Joseph Fernandez has shed light on how ignorant many journalists are of the risks of compromising their source confidentiality and even of whether recently legislated shield laws offer them any protection in the states or territories where they work. His survey of 154 journalists found that while almost all journalists expressed unreserved commitment to the confidentiality of their sources, three quarters were uncertain about the extent to which shield laws might cover them and almost half expressed no alarm at official surveillance of their communications. The price of a detected link can be high and many whistleblowers have paid the price of their liberty or careers.

They include the most infamous – Chelsea Manning – serving what is likely to be the rest of her life in a US military prison for her releases of information to Wikileaks.

In Australia, the list of discovered sources include former customs officer Allan Kessing, Victorian detective Simon Artz and design college part-timer Freya Newman.

If journalists are to have any hope of protecting confidential sources into the future it will require a multi-faceted approach along the lines recommended by Posetti in her UNESCO study.

It proposes an ambitious 11-point framework for enhancing free expression, strengthening legislative and policy shields for journalists and whistleblowers, and training reporters.

In 1989 Janet Malcolm used her long-form article ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ in the New Yorker to question the ethics of the journalistic interview. She wrote:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

A quarter of a century later, the fundamental question facing journalists is whether the very act of promising confidentiality to a source (particularly a government whistleblower) is unethical, given the likelihood that agencies have the power, the will and the technology to detect and identify sources.

A 2015 Deep Throat would be unlikely to survive a week without detection, regardless of whether a journalist has promised them and even if a shield law allows the reporter to refuse to identify the source in court.

Sadly, despite such undertakings, the trail of metadata would likely produce enough evidence to nail the confidential source, further damaging the public’s right to know.

An abridged version of this article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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