Source protection, sometimes also referred to as source confidentiality or in the U.S. as the reporter’s privilege, is a right accorded to journalists under the laws of many countries, as well as under international law. It prohibits authorities, including the courts, from compelling a journalist to reveal the identity of an anonymous source for a story. The right is based on a recognition that without a strong guarantee of anonymity, many would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information of public interests with journalists.
Regardless of whether the right to source confidentiality is protected by law, the process of communicating between journalists and sources can jeopardize the privacy and safety of sources, as third parties can hack electronic communications or otherwise spy on interactions between journalists and sources. News media and their sources have expressed concern over government covertly accessing their private communications. To mitigate these risks, journalists and sources often rely on encrypted messaging.
Journalists rely on source protection to gather and reveal information in the public interest from confidential sources. Such sources may require anonymity to protect them from physical, economic or professional reprisals in response to their revelations. There is a strong tradition of legal source protection internationally, in recognition of the function that confidential sources play in facilitating ‘watchdog‘ or ‘accountability’ journalism. While professional journalistic practice entails multi-sourcing, verification and corroboration, confidential sources are a key component of this practice. Without confidential sources, many acts of investigative story-telling—from Watergate to the major 2014 investigative journalism project Offshore Leaks undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)—may never have surfaced. Even reporting that involves gathering opinions in the streets, or a background briefing often relies on trust that a journalist respects confidentiality where this is requested.