Pilar Urbano —— Does a journalist have the right to silence?

The motto “report rigorously, without favor and without fear” says almost everything about information. The rigor requires investigation, contrast of versions, documentation and testimonial, written, sound or graphic evidence … that endorse what is reported. The no favor points directly to neutrality, fairness, objectivity, without personal interests or the information company mediating or biasing the information. And the without fear, demands independence, not having owners or reverential fears of any kind of power … And the courage to tell the truth even if the journalist is risking his job, or it is uncomfortable for those who decide, finance and send for on.

What can a journalist keep silent? Rather, what should be silent. To begin with, the secrecy of sources, which is a duty of professional ethics, if the off-the-record has been agreed. And to follow: any truthful but slanderous information not previously reported to the judge. Any defamation that, even if it is true, unnecessarily injures the defamed person in his right to social honor, professional prestige, good name, family peace … The adverb “unnecessarily” is important. That is, when it destroys an asset unnecessarily.

On the contrary, there may be a moral obligation to defame – in the strict sense of stripping a prestige that someone unduly holds – if it is done to protect the common good, or that of a community. Vgr: report for information from a group of parents of students that a certain teacher or monitor is a pedophile. How can there be an obligation – and urgent – to publicly alert about the existence of a certain danger or risk: water in poor condition, a vaccine or drug with a high percentage of harm, a telephone trick whose activation would destroy a hard disk, the detection of an individual who spies against national interests, or a laboratory that alters food, or a group preparing an attack. There, silence can be a serious crime.

A journalist cannot silence the identity of a criminal source, under the umbrella of professional secrecy or off the record, when that impunity constitutes a danger to others. Not a few cases were experienced with informants of drug trafficking, human organs, women for prostitution … or with terrorists from the Jihad or ETA. At these extremes, silence is complicit, although a highly informative source dries up by not keeping quiet.

The problem or the dilemma arises from the binomial private life – public life. A journalist knows which characters, no matter how famous, have the right to their privacy; and which characters, as they hold authority, have the duty of public and private exemplarity, without a license or bull that exempts them from honest and legal conduct within their home, mansion or palace. The doubt arises when the character, powerful or optional, despite his morally reprehensible private conduct, does not harm the rights or belongings of third parties, nor does it harm the common good, nor does he make scandalizing boasts of his deviations. There the journalist can conscientiously and with upright criteria –without favor and without fear- manage his silences. Above all, if speaking, if recounting those private events of low morale –water that does not move the mill-, it causes damage or ruptures in the family relationship.

As a general rule, not everything a journalist knows should be told. There is the filter, always unequivocal, of the common good. And another more subtle filter, that of personal dignity. Neither the curiosity nor the curiosity of the public have the right to be satisfied at the cost of anyone’s disgrace. There, silence is a noble trait of humanity. On the other hand, the inadmissible, indecent and base, is the silence of today for the extortion of tomorrow. Expressed cynically: “So-and-so is worth more for what he is silent than for what he says.”

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Pilar Urbano 
Journalist and writer

 

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