June 27th, 2007
The need to pursue quality journalism and keep faith with its sources are why The Straits Times will continue to “vigorously resist” pressure to disclose its confidential sources, said its editor Han Fook Kwang. He reiterated that Singapore courts’ recent rulings on the Prebon-BCG case do not change this position.
Han said that the company would back its reporters all the way if they chose to be in contempt of court and risk going to jail in order to abide by the professional ethic to protect their sources.
He revealed that ST had encountered similar demands to reveal sources in the past and had always said no, confronting lawyer’s letter with lawyer’s letter. Usually, the matter ended there without going to court. He said that the Prebon-BCG case was different because the multi-million-dollar stakes meant that the two broking firms were prepared to go all the way.
He explained that ST had exhausted all legal options, but in the end had to leave it to the journalist to decide whether to reveal the source. Whatever the decision, ST would have backed him all the way â€œlegally, financially and professionallyâ€, he said.
On a more positive note, Han emphasised that such cases were extremely rare and the recent setback was no reason for journalists to change their approach to newsgathering.
He was speaking at a forum organised by the Singapore Press Club and the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) about the so-called “reporter’s privilege” to keep sources confidential. Other speakers were lawyer Peter Cuthbert Low, Ang Peng Hwa, chair of WKWSCI, and Peter Lim, former editor-in-chief of The Straits Times group.
Peter Lim recounted his own dramatic experience after the 1981 by-elections when, at a specially convened press conference, he was asked to reveal the source of a story on possible bus-fare hikes by the late Ong Teng Cheong, who was then communications minister.
In the subsequent ST report, Lim was quoted as saying that he was proud of his reporters for sticking to principle and refusing to divulge their sources. The quote, Lim said, did not win him any fans in the upper reaches of government.
The legal experts surveyed relevant laws around the world. Ang noted that source confidentiality was never an absolute right but rather an â€œissue of balanceâ€ â€“ courts also had to take into account the interests of justice. Both Ang and Low made it clear that the trend globally was towards greater protection for reporter-source confidentiality, since the ability to gather information was central to the universally recognised right of freedom of expression.
However, do international trends matter, when Singapore constantly asserts that it is an exceptional case? Low noted that so many countries were moving in the same direction that the trend was hard to ignore. Ang added that even the relatively undeveloped “-stans” of the former Soviet Union had stronger recognition of reporter’s privilege in their new constitutions. While Singapore need not have identical laws to the rest of the world, it should not be so far off as to become an outlier, he said.
Han added that while Singapore was a special case in certain other respects â€“ particularly in the kind of relationship it wanted between government and press â€“ the issue of reporter’s privilege was not one of those where Singaporean exceptionalism seemed relevant. The principles were fairly universally accepted and there was a global convergence in thinking, he said.
Straits Times coverage of the Prebon-BGC case by Lee Su Shyan
The dramatic confrontation between government and the Straits Times over an unnamed source â€“ PDFs of the ST reports of the time.