Why the Palace fears unnamed news sources
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo
Inq7.net 2006-03-13
Despite the lifting of Presidential Proclamation 1017 which placed the country in a state of national emergency, the administration persists in trying to influence, intimidate and control media by suggesting guidelines, to include even the use of unnamed news sources by broadcast entities.

But we wonder why the government is so bent on training their sights on the use of unnamed sources when this is already covered under an existing policy guideline that forms part of the code of ethics of the Kilusan ng mga Brodkasters ng Pilipinas. What is the point in stating broadcast guidelines that have long been established and practiced if not to intimidate media—and not just broadcast? Is this in keeping with Malacañang’s drift in following the Chinese adage that “to scare the monkey, kill the chicken.”
Although journalism ethics discourages the indiscriminate use of unnamed sources, it also recognizes the necessity of quoting anonymous sources in certain compelling circumstances. The dark side of an American presidency would not have surfaced had the Washington Post not taken courage in using information from a source (then referred to as ‘Deep Throat’) who had allowed his identity to be revealed only recently.

Generally, it makes sense to identify the names of news sources—after all, people who have nothing to hide should not be afraid of being identified and held accountable for their public statements. However, there are some occasions when it is necessary to withhold the identity of the person giving the information, such as when this would invite reprisal, threat to life, job security and other such serious consequences. Of course, this goes without saying that journalists should take extra care when selecting news sources who they will keep anonymous, making sure that they are people of established probity and authority on the particular item being written about.

Media practitioners are forced to make a judgment call when information provided by a source is as important as the news about a Palace plot to send soldiers to plant and detonate bombs in order to create conditions for declaring martial law. In this instance, media must make a judgment call in favor of keeping democratic processes intact by fostering the public’s right to know and the safeguarding the news source’s right to keep his identity concealed as protection against undemocratic actions such as State reprisal.

A good idea of how this policy is practiced is in a section of the code of ethics of a US publication, Gannett Newspaper Division: Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms. For more detailed information, just go to the following link: www.gannett.com/go/press/pr061499.htm

The Gannett newspaper guidelines clearly states that “The use of unnamed sources in published stories should be rare and only for important news. Whenever possible, reporters should seek to confirm news on the record.” Among the more important points of the Gannett guidelines are, as follows:

1. Only persons of authority should be used as a source.
2. At least one editor should know who the source is.
3. Should the source provide information that is not accurate or truthful, then the grant of anonymity may be justifiably withdrawn by the publication.
4. The information should not be used by the unnamed source as a forum for ventilating unsavory remarks against affected parties. State only the important facts that the public has to know.

In deciding not to identify its source, media takes the risk for the liability of what was disseminated. The issue of protecting the source of information is such a revered principle of journalism that conscientious writers are willing to go to jail—and some have gone to jail for it—rather than reveal their source.

It is also a fact of life that some writers invoke so-called ‘unnamed sources’ as a means of projecting their own thoughts or ideas of people whose intentions are far from honorable. One sees a lot of these in the entertainment sections of newspapers and in tabloids. Thus, it is not surprising that many entertainment section and tabloid writers end up being sued for libel.

But why is the administration objecting vigorously to the use of unnamed sources even if this is standard practice in journalism?

During the last two months of the Marcos regime, I have noted the deluge of critical information being leaked by government officials and employees to us in the opposition. Such is the fate of unpopular regimes that have long lost their moral right to govern.

In the Cory Aquino Media Bureau which I headed during the 1986 Snap Election campaign, I was regularly receiving Malacañang tactical communications plans from now Representative Vic Sumulong, a Cory Aquino cousin, which Vic got from the very bowels of Malacanang. Being a close friend of now DILG secretary Ronnie Puno, I suspected that Vic got these strategy papers from Ronnie. Vic would not reveal his source for fear that it might leak back to Malacanang and I never bothered to ask Vic anymore after Marcos left for Hawaii.

During the four days of the People Power Revolt, these information leaks—not just from their communications team but also from the other departments of the Marcos government—reached its crescendo. We were kept up to date of the movement of troops that were being dispatched to EDSA. Every truck that left Malacanang was reported to us, many of these said to be transporting heavy crates. Marcos must be moving his wealth, many of us thought. It was almost as instantaneous as knowing when Marcos was going to cough a minute before he did.

Thus, it is not surprising to see this regime attempt to remove similar leaks from happening. If media agrees to government suggestions that information from unnamed sources will not be disseminated, that would effectively repel many of those who would be willing to spill the beans on administration malpractices and high crimes.

Inside scoops are the most damaging kind of information. EO 464 is all about the prevention of classified or top secret information being transmitted to those in the senate who can use it against the regime. It is easier to debunk the claim of an outsider than a charge that is supported by insider testimony and actual documents.

The Telecom scandal emanated from a Malacanang source—the late Bing Rodrigo, one of Madame Gloria M. Arroyo’s closest friends. The President Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard graft case that is now in the Ombudsman was the result of the information that was provided by one of the directors of the Public Estates Authority. The extent of corruption in the military was first exposed by the Oakwood mutineers, young officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Department of Agriculture employees were the ones who provided the senate with the documents that served as basis for investigating the Fertilizer Scam.

The current national crisis from whence all these troubles pertaining to PP 1017 are rooted resulted from what are believed are the voices of Madame Arroyo and Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano discussing the manipulation of 2004 election results—the Garci tapes. Who were the sources of the Garci tapes? They were none other than the military personnel who were tasked to do it.

You may email William M. Esposo at: w_esposo@yahoo.com

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