Media lobbyists are jumping to the defence of e-tv after police served subpoenas on journalists who interviewed two criminals planning to prey on World Cup visitors. Police are demanding the unedited footage of the interview, as well as the identities of the thugs, one of whom has already been arrested. The other is likely to be nabbed soon, which would obviate the necessity fot the subpoenas and allow this issue to disappear quietly. But the debate around the use of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to force journalists to divulge information won’t go away.
Business Day argues in an editorial today that the legislation should be used circumspectly, not as a tool for lazy policemen who don’t want to do their own investigation.
“…in the e.tv saga, there is little to be gained from forcing journalists to reveal their sources and much potential to damage the media’s credibility with the public and ability to extract information from interviewees in future.”
I agree with Business Day’s argument in general. But I have to add: in the e-tv case, it is the broadcaster itself which damaged the media’s credibility with the public by manufacturing a sensationalist story, as comments in the blogosphere, letters columns of newspapers and on Twitter indicate.
As I argued in an academic paper some years ago, in appropriate circumstances it is in the interests of society as a whole that journalists must be able to give assurances of protection to the sources of information given in confidence. If journalists are forced to divulge the identity of sources, and information such as video footage, to police, it would deter other sources from coming forward, undermining the media’s ability to act as a watchdog on behalf of the public. It would turn the media into police informants, negating the ability to bring independent scrutiny to bear on institutions of power.
But that assumes that a public interest is being served in the first place. As I argued before, E-tv’s story did nothing of the sort. That kind of journalism does far more to undemine the credibility of the news media than the police’s – admittedly ill-advised – decision to serve Section 205 subpoenas. Perhaps professional media organisations should be more circumsepct about jumping to the defence of colleagues who sully the profession. By all means, point out the dangers of misusing Section 205 against journalists; but point out, too, the dangers of taking the public for a fool.