UNESCO Publication on Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age

UNESCO released new comprehensive study of changes that impact on legal frameworks that support protection of journalistic sources in the digital age.

While the rapidly emerging digital environment offers great opportunities for journalists to investigate and report information in the public interest, it also poses particular challenges regarding the privacy and safety of journalistic sources. These challenges include: mass surveillance as well as targeted surveillance, data retention, expanded and broad antiterrorism measures, and national security laws and over-reach in the application of these.

All these can undermine the confidentiality protection of those who collaborate with journalists, and who are essential for revealing sensitive information in the public interest but who could expose themselves to serious risks and pressures. The effect is also to chill whistleblowing and thereby undermine public access to information and the democratic role of the media. In turn, this jeopardizes the sustainability of quality journalism.

The research was conducted within UNESCO framework of Internet Universality which advocates the Internet governance principles of Human Rights, Openness, Accessibility, and Multistakeholder Participation. The protection of confidentiality of journalists’ sources relates especially to the right to freedom of expression (and the correlatives of press freedom and access to information), and the right to privacy.

The present research provides a comprehensive review of developments that can impact on the legal frameworks that support protection of journalistic sources. Interviews, panel discussions, thematic studies and a review panel ensured the input of legal and media experts, journalists and scholars. This in-depth study thus seeks to assess the evolution of protective legal frameworks over the eight years from 2007-2015, and provides recommendations for the future of journalistic source protection.

The study found that the legal frameworks that protect the confidential sources of journalism are under significant strain in the digital age. This context is leading journalists to adapt their work methods in an effort to shield their sources from exposure. A further finding is that all stakeholders have a crucial role to play in the introduction, development or updating of better legal safeguards for all acts of journalism, including for whistleblowers. The research also provides recommendations on journalistic source protection, starting with independent oversight on surveillance and data retention, through to the development of education and training programs in digital safety.

A major output of the study is an 11-point assessment tool for measuring the effectiveness of legal source protection frameworks in the digital era. In this way, the research serves as guidance for UNESCO, Member States and other stakeholders to promote and implement more protective frameworks for the confidentiality of journalistic sources.

Nevertheless, as women journalists face additional risks in the course of their work – on and offline, the publication sheds light on those increased risks faced by female sources and whistleblowers and recommends to strengthen source protections for women sources and also empowering women’s participation in accountability reporting.

UNESCO thanks Sweden for its support in delivering this publication. This research is published as the ninth edition of UNESCO publications series on Internet Freedom that was begun in 2009 and that has strived to explore the changing legal and policy issues of Internet. The work for the study was conducted for UNESCO by WAN-IFRA, the global news publishing association that houses the World Editors Forum (WEF). It is authored by Julie Posetti, affiliated with the University of Wollongong (Australia).

The publication is available here.