Magistrate Rules Human Rights Groups Have Journalists Privilege

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am at the AALS conference in New York and don’t have as much time to blog as I would like, but I want to flag a critically important recent decision by a magistrate judge in the Eastern District of New York holding that human-rights groups have the same right as journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources:

A United States court has ordered that Amnesty International (AI) and other human rights groups can assert the same privileges that journalists use, allowing them to better protect anonymous sources.

US magistrate Viktor Pohorelsky said in an order issued on Tuesday (local time) that AI did not have to disclose the names of lawyers quoted anonymously in a report about them being videotaped while talking to their clients in prison.

“Amnesty is part of the press in terms of gathering information and disseminating it – they serve that function,” Wallace Neel said, a lawyer representing AI.

An official with Human Rights Watch (HRW) said any ruling that boosted protection for human rights organisations is positive.

“Our sources depend on confidentiality to come forward,” United States HRW program director David Fathi said.

The issue came up in a lawsuit filed in 2004 in which lawyers complained that employees at a federal jail in New York City secretly recorded their conversations with clients who were arrested following the September 11 attacks.

Lawyers for Legal Aid, which provides legal services to the poor, brought the suit, claiming jail managers and administrators ordered or sanctioned the recordings. The overall case has yet to be heard.

AI was drawn into the suit because a report it issued in March 2002 said some attorneys were concerned about being recorded.

Lawyers for jail officials wanted AI to disclose the names of lawyers quoted anonymously in the report, but the human rights group refused in all but the case of Bryan Lonegan, who agreed to waive his confidentiality.

The magistrate judge ordered that AI did not have to disclose the names of its sources, apart from the name of a lawyer that Mr Lonegan had mentioned to the group.

This is an excellent decision. As Fathi points out, few sources would be willing to talk to groups like HRW and AI if they knew that their identities might not remain private — in the human-rights context, anonymity often means the difference between life and death.

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