The safety of whistleblowers – Protecting sources while bringing important issues to daylight

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Sami Ben Gharbia, the Founding Director of Global Voices Advocacy in Tunisia gave some tips for journalists to protect their sources at a panel discussion on World Press Freedom Day. He said the Snowden case proved that technology cannot be trusted, because security officials can break in.

1. Encrypt emails
Sami Ben Gharbia said one way to secure the source is to ask him or her to send everything in an encrypted manner. The panelists noted a threat with encryption, however.

If the source does not know how to encrypt or read encrypted mails, a situation may develop where safety is compromised. Ben Gharbia says the most secure way is to avoid all technological means.

2. Meet face-to-face
“The contact with the source should be a physical and on the ground contact. “ Sami Ben Gharbia said.

When journalist meets offline with the source phone calls or emails cannot be followed.
Rana Sabbagh, the Executive Director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in Jordan said the best piece of advice she has got is never to trust the computer.

“It is like sending a post card. Everyone is going to read it. What I do is I go out, I interview people, I take notes, I rec notes, I put everything on paper and I hide this paper.”
Her online time is the time of publishing.

3. Talk to many sources
According to Julie Posetti, the Head of Editorial Digital Capability of Fairfax Media in Australia and the author of the UNESCO study Protecting journalist sources at the digital age, leak investigations within governments and corporations are increasing around the world.

The panelists suggested that talking to as many people as possible within one company or institution is an easy way of source protection. This technique makes it much harder to track who said what to whom.

4. Wait
The fourth tip is to wait for a while after an interview before publishing. If that is possible, it hides the link between the journalist and the source somewhat, making it less obvious.

5. Hide or die
What happens when the information is considered to be harmful to national security or when the uncovered secrets turn out to be very unpleasant?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that many whistleblowers have to pay a high price for their actions of courage. The whistleblower Edward Snowden is stuck in exile in Russia and Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who leaked information to WikiLeaks, is serving a 35-year-sentence.

It is important for journalists that none of the information they have got from their source goes outside the newsroom before publishing. The whistleblower trusts the journalist and should the journalist be under surveillance by a government agency, the risk to the whistleblower is high. Sometimes the leakers are in danger of being murdered.

Text: Elise Tamminen

Photo: Hannele Kauppinen

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