Worrying trend in U.S., other democracies of authorities targeting journalists and anonymous sources

By The Signals Network Staff

Recent stories of journalists being targeted in democracies such as France and the U.S. speak to a worrying trend in attacks by authorities on journalists and their anonymous sources.

Protections are increasingly in jeopardy. The attack on press freedom at a local level does not grab headlines as much as big national cases, but the chilling effect is as big a concern, if not bigger, in part because it is less covered.

For example:

  • In Nevada, an ex-politician faces charges for killing Las Vegas reporter Jeff German in September 2022, and there has been little coverage on the ongoing law enforcement response in this case: Police seized German’s devices and despite ongoing litigation by German’s employer, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to protect privileged sources on those devices, it recently came to light that the police searched at least one of the devices without informing the Journal or the Court. German was a long time and prominent investigative journalist who had sources in multiple agencies, including the police department, who could be exposed by a search of his devices. The case is now at Nevada’s Supreme Court. (The Signals Network has filed an amicus brief in this case, focused on the need to protect sources.)
  • In early 2023, journalist Brandon Jarvis of the Virginia Scope newsletter was subpoenaed by a state senator, accused of texting the senator’s estranged wife, as part of an ongoing custody battle. The subpoena “is an attempt to find out who in the family, or acting as representative of the family, communicated with Jarvis,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
  • This summer, the police raided  a small local newspaper in Marion, Kansas, seizing computers, records and cellphones, in part to get to anonymous sources. The newspaper publisher told the Kansas Reflector that police were motivated by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents, and “the message was clear: ‘Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.’”

Suing journalists for libel or slander can be a way for police to force them to reveal sources. Not every state has a shield law. In fact, only 40 states and the District of Columbia do. Even amongst those that do, the strength of those laws varies greatly.  There is no federal shield law, despite a growing need for one.

It is not just an issue in the U.S., but also in other “healthy” democracies. Earlier this month, French journalist Ariane Lavrilleux was arrested and questioned by police about her 2021 report on alleged use of French intelligence by Egyptian authorities who bombed and killed smugglers on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Her reporting relied on leaked classified documents, and, according to her lawyer, there is now an attempt to force her to identify her source.

The relationship between a journalist and source is sacred. Ethical journalists go to great lengths to protect their sources in order because they in part understand that without those sources, they can’t do their job of providing public interest information to readers. But behind these stories — and too many other examples — the journalist’s source is in danger. That source is a human who risked everything to shed light on wrong-doing, and now sits terrified that their identity might be exposed.

The Signals Network works with sources daily who are working with journalists to expose wrong-doing and follows these developments closely. Please reach out for an interview or more details.

For journalist inquiries, email Sarah Gamard, TSN’s communications manager, at sarah@thesignalsnetwork.org.