“The exposure of illegal and criminal activities by governments or their agencies” (Bryan, 2005) is what is generally regarded as whistle-blowing. And it has recently been in the spot-light all around the world with Wikileaks’ 75,000 document strong Afghan-War protocols.
As Oakes (2005) suggests “Democracy cannot work if journalists only report what governments want them to report. It is the threat of leaks that keep government (relatively) honest. A society where government has tight control of the flow of information is not a democratic society. Leaks and whistle-blowers are essential to a proper democratic system”. Which is the reason why investigative journalism generally prides itself on being an agent for this “keeping honest” of governments – and rightly so.
However, when it comes to leaks, ethical questions relating to the protecting of sources must be raised. Wikileak’s official line is roughly that they aim to protecting the informant’s identity as much as possible, and they seem to have done pretty well in the past. And most journalists would agree to this modi operandi.
And the principle seems to be pretty well adhered to when it comes to western sources and informants. Yes, everyone agrees, the objectives of investigative journalism must not be achieved without protecting the anonymity of the sources, especially if the sources are likely to face harsh consequences of their disclosure of information.
However, it seems that it is becoming standard practice to not fully protect sources from the “Other” side. The “Other” as in Afghan, Iraqi or Indonesian informants.
It is because of this apparent neglect for the safety of Afghan sources that “human rights groups are urging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to remove the names of Afghans helping US forces from thousands of leaked military documents, fearing they could be the target for reprisals” (Karim Talbi, AFP, August 11)
But it’s not only Wikileaks, of course. Mainstream media are doing it too. Sarah Ferguson in her reportage “Smuggler’s Paradise” (Four Corners, August 2010) is a recent example. ABC doesn’t seem to have any second thoughts about airing a program complete with footage showing full faces, names, documentation of the Iraqi asylum-seeker informant and his family. What happened to protecting the informant here? Where are the blurred faces and disguised voices, withheld names – standard tools frequently used for any western-informant? Is the life, safety and anonymity of an Afghan, Iraqi or Indonesian informant less worth protecting?
In “Smuggler’s Paradise, ABC quite openly equips the informant with hidden pen cameras, sending him into prison and government buildings, putting his safety and life at risk – all captured and broadcast – to make a more compelling story. Is this really “Investigative Journalism at its very best? Clearly Mainstream Media and Whistle-blowers alike need to live up to their moral values and review their practice in regards to protecting all sources and informants irrespective of where they are whistling from.