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'Scribes have right to maintain con

'Scribes have right to maintain confidentiality'

The Hindu (New Delhi)
August 31, 2000

NEW DELHI, AUG. 30. A report, prepared under the mandate of the United
Nations Commission on Human Rights by a former Indian civil servant, Mr.
Abid Hussain, upholds the right of journalists to maintain
confidentiality of the sources of information as also of access to

Though dealing with the state of freedom of opinion and expression in
the United Kingdom. (Particularly in Northern Ireland), as required by a
resolution of the U.N. body, the points made by it have a special
bearing to the situation in India. In view of threats of curbs on
journalists --- under special powers contemplated by the executive to
counter terrorist activities, and the inadequaci8es of the bill, now
before a parliamentary standing committee, on the people's right to
information. Submitted some time ago, the report has not attracted
adequate notice in India. For that matter, even the Right to Information
Bill, overshadowed, as it was by other political controversies at the
time of its introduction in the last session of Parliament, has not
attracted sufficient attention.

The 28-page report by Mr. Abid Hussain as Special Rapporteur of the
Commission deals at length with the legislative measure concerning the
freedom of expression in the U.K. and related issues -- which have a
wider applicability. Two observations, contained in the document are

1) "The Special Rapporteur considers that if media organisations are
ordered to hand over confidential information serious damage would be
done to public interest journalism in the U.K. As provided by the
European Convention on Human Rights, a journalist should not be used as
a source for investigating authorities to obtain evidence from. In
addition, undertakings of confidentiality have to be absolute, since
otherwise the information would never have reached the public domain. It
should also not be forgotten that the safety of journalists and their
sources could also be compromised if the identity of sources were to be
revealed. Consequently, in order to respect journalists' duty to protect
source confidentiality, it is the view of the Special Rapporteur that
the legal requirement that journalists hand over requested material
should be dropped.

2) "The Special Rapporteur is concerned at the use of secrecy in the
U.K., which leads to restrictions in the daily work of the Press, but
also hinders full access to information relating to the public interest.
In particular, the Special Rapporteur considers the use of the Official
Secrets Act to prosecute journalists and writers, as well as the
existence of the D-notice Committee, to be incompatible with media
freedom. The Special Rapporteur is of the view that a democracy can only
operate if the citizens and their elected representatives are fully
informed. With the exception of a few types of documents, it is
desirable to make government documents public to allow citizens to know
that public funds are being utilised correctly. Thus the Special
Rapporteur notes that in order for journalists to be able to carry out
their role as 'watchdogs' in a democratic society, it is indispensable
that they have access, granted on an equitable and impartial basis, to
information held by public authorities."

"Forcing a journalist to hand over confidential interview notes can have
an intimidatory effect on investigative journalism. Indeed, such
practices can result in deterring journalists from gathering information
about human rights abuses, the report said."