Colombian Supreme Court defends confidentiality of journalistic sources

The Colombian media company Publicaciones Semana S.A. will not have to reveal the sources of information for an investigative report published in its magazine Dinero.

On Feb. 27, the Labor Cassation Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in favor of Publicaciones Semana S.A. by determining that source confidentiality is essential for the circulation of information and its legitimacy, the Court reported on its website. "Within the framework of the social function that journalism fulfills, it permits knowing aspects that otherwise would be hidden or silenced,” the entity added in its statement.

The Supreme Court of Justice ruled that source confidentiality is based on the ability that the journalist has to refrain from revealing the origin, content and/or form of how he accessed the information in order to make matters of public interest known to the community, the institution reported on its website.

This case goes back to the publication of the 2013 article Los pecados de Eike (The sins of Eike), in magazine Dinero of the media company Publicaciones Semana. The article mentioned “apparent irregularities” by Leyla Rojas, former vice minister of water who at the time was responsible for sustainability at the CCX Colombia coal project, which was owned by Brazilian business mogul Eike Batista, according to CNN Español.

For this article Rojas filed a civil liability claim alleging that the publication harmed her. The lawsuit was admitted by the Superior Court of Bogotá, an instance that required Publicaciones Semana to reveal all the evidence on which the report at the center of the lawsuit was based, including the information that the author of the article exchanged with his sources.

Upon this request, Publicaciones Semana S.A. went to the Supreme Court of Justice, requesting  tutela [a resource in the Colombian justice system to restore fundamental rights] from the media company. This is a mechanism of immediate protection of constitutional rights that could be violated by the action or omission of any public authority and that is included in the Constitution.

The Court denied Publicaciones Semana’s request for a tutela on Dec. 7, 2017, a fact that was subsequently questioned by the new Vice President of the Court, Álvaro Fernando García.

García told the newspaper El Colombiano in late January that the decision of the Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court was "an error." He also maintained that media have the right to act and work, and that “if the source is not taken care of, where would that leave the society? We need a free society, not tied up, not gagged and that teaches us that we have to recover values for a democratic society.”

In the ruling that favors Publicaciones Semana, the Supreme Court stated that journalistic work "is an exercise of the right to freedom of expression and information and, as such, democratic, legitimate and adjusted to the Constitution," the institution said on its site. The freedoms of opinion and participation that derive from freedom of expression, the Court continued, contribute to generating deliberative and pluralistic spaces within a democracy.

The Colombian Media Association (AMI, for its acronym in Spanish), which represents the main newspapers and radio and TV stations in Colombia, published on its website that the Court's ruling in favor of the right to journalistic source confidentiality ratifies "the rich and extensive Colombian jurisprudence that has always been consistent in the defense and protection of this constitutional guarantee.”

The AMI also pointed out that the confidentiality of journalistic sources is a pillar of the exercise of journalism, and that this is an essential good for democracy.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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