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Forcing journalist to reveal sources will be bad–for the government!

Our spanking new, hand-picked Attorney-General is proposing life imprisonment for journalist who refuse to reveal their sources.

And surprisingly, my favorite Member of Parliament,Dato Azalina Othman, has supported the move, saying it was ‘high-time’ Malaysian did something. Fortunately, some calmer more rationale heads, like Dato Paul Low have criticized the A-G for his short-sighted stupidity.

Putting aside the fact that anonymity of sources is a core component of Press freedom, it’s easy to extrapolate how harsher punishment for journalists who keep their sources anonymous will back-fire spectacularly for the Government.

If sources know that Journalist will be pressured to reveal their identities, most sources will stop speaking journalist, thereby stemming the leakages from the government, and keeping the status quo.Or so the theory goes…

In reality, sources will still leak out confidential government material, but instead of doing so to journalist, who hopefully will abide by a code of conduct, leaked information will now find a direct path to the public via websites like Wikileaks. Removing the filter that ethical journalist can provide is detrimental to the Governments interest, and sources who in some cases have given their lives are unlikely to stop.

Wikileaks has a special place in the modern internet, but it’s policy towards leaks is clear —reveal it all. Wikileaks almost never redacts data that might be deemed private or ‘in the interest of security’, it publishes everything it receives, as CIA director, John Brennan found out. His passport number, home address, and phone number, as well as the names, phones numbers, and home addresses of his references, not forgetting his un-redacted employment history and his wife’s Social Security number were published on Wikileaks following a hack on his AOL account–even though they had nothing to do with the story.

A journalist might have been more responsible with the data, especially his wife’s Social Security number, but because it went straight to Wikileaks…well you know what happens.

Without journalist acting as a ‘last filter’ as what Glenn Greenwald is doing with the Snowden documents, it actually can prove far more detrimental to the government. Imagine if highly controversial submarine purchases were disclosed to Wikileaks, but accompanying the purchasing details were also Top Secret disclosures, such as the location of the submarine, or the personal details of the crew–Wikileaks would have no issue disclosing everything.

A more seasoned local journalist might be better placed to carve out the sensitive information, while leaving the controversial ‘public interest’ purchasing information intact.

This topic hits a bit close to home for me. My ‘source’ for all the Hacking Team leaks, is a 500GB torrent file that anyone can download, but I’m the only one combing through it for Malaysian specific details. In this 500GB torrent lies detailed personal information of the company Director of Miliserv Sdn. Bhd. as well as several employees of the MACC and The Prime Ministers Office. Part of the reason, I trust the ‘source’ is that these details match what I can search for online, and can easily obtain from the election commissions website.

For my part, I’ve removed these details from what I published online, but most of the details are a search away in Wikileaks anyway. I’m not a professionally trained journalist, and hence I’m not sure if what I’m doing is ethical or right, but I follow my conscience. It’s also easier for me, since I’m not ‘revealing’ anything, but merely aggregating publicly available information.

If the law fails to protect sources, then the sources will protect themselves, by releasing more information to public websites like Wikileaks, and allowing journalist to combed through these publicly available documents, which might contain top secret and personal information that have nothing to do with the main story–a sort collateral damage.

Therefore in the interest of the Government, I strongly recommend it strengthen the protection of sources and whistle-blowers, to enable not just more transparency, but responsible transparency that only trained journalist can provide.

Oh, and by the way, bloggers like me are considered journalist in many jurisdictions and are afforded the same protections–well except in Malaysia :).

2 Comments

    • keith

      There’s a tremendous difference between the Malaysian Government and Malaysia. I live in the latter am grateful for everything it has provided for me thus far, the former though I owe nothing to.

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