CPJ calls on agency to respect confidentiality of journalistic sources

New York, August 29, 2002
—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urges the U.K. Financial Services Authority (FSA), a banking and investment watchdog agency, to respect the confidentiality of sources in its discussions with news organizations over leaked documents pertaining to Interbrew, the Belgium-based brewing group.

The discussions follow Interbrew’s July 26 decision to stop legal proceedings against the Reuters news agency and four daily newspapers (The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Independent, and The Times) and to hand over the matter to the FSA. The FSA has launched an investigation into the brewing group’s allegations that the leaked documents may have been part of an attempt to manipulate the stock market.

Interbrew claims these media outlets’ November 2001 reports about an imminent bid for South African Breweries (SAB) were based on false information and caused the company’s shares to fall and SAB’s stock to jump. Interbrew suggested that the anonymous source of this allegedly false information may have illegally profited from the stock market reaction.

Interbrew alleged that the documents had been doctored to make the financial markets believe that a bid was imminent and said the company needed the originals in order to trace the damaging leak.

The news organizations refused to hand over the documents, citing their duty to protect journalists’ sources. On December 19, 2001, however, the High Court ruled that the public interest in protecting the source of the leak was outweighed by the public interest in letting Interbrew seek justice against a source. Seven months of legal wrangling ensued, culminating in Interbrew’s July 22 decision to apply to the High Court for seizure of The Guardian’s assets. That threat receded four days later when the brewing company handed the entire affair over to the FSA. The news organizations say they have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The FSA has given the news organizations a September 2 deadline to respond to its request for access to the documents. The FSA has statutory powers to demand compliance, and, if the news organizations resist, could raid their offices to search for the documents.

“We urge the FSA to uphold the principle of the confidentiality of journalistic sources—one of the cornerstones of press freedom,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “By demanding that the media turn over the documents, the FSA would erode the ability of the media to protect sources and deter whistleblowers from providing important information that the public has a right to know.”