Professional association backs journalist who refuses to give up source
By John McPhaul
The president of the Puerto Rico Journalists Association (ASPPRO by its Spanish initials) is supporting the decision of journalist Alex Delgado not to reveal the identity of the source who provided him with a document from the Special Investigations Bureau (NIE by its Spanish initials) in the exercise of his duties as vice president of WAPA-TV news.
“The confidentiality of a journalist’s sources is the cornerstone of Freedom of the Press, which is why we support the decision of the colleagues,” Damaris Suárez said in a written statement. “In addition to being a matter of principle, it is absolutely absurd and unnecessary to order colleagues to reveal who sent them the official document in the middle of a defamation case.”
Suárez expressed concern about the effect of a court order prevailing to reveal a source.
Delgado and Yesenia Torres, then a reporter for the Noticentro Investiga unit, appear as co-defendants in a defamation appeal filed by prosecutor Idelfonso Torres for the content of the reports published in 2018 on an investigation of employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for allegedly charging their personal accounts via ATH Móvil for certifications to restore electricity service to subscribers affected by the passage of Hurricane Maria.
According to the official NIE document, prosecutor Torres, to whom the investigation had originally been delegated, was fired from the probe after it became known that he had also paid for the PREPA certification.
As part of the discovery of evidence, Pablo Colón Santiago, Torres’s lawyer, has insisted that Delgado reveal who the person was who gave him the NIE document, which has been ordered by resolution by Ponce Superior Court Judge Hamed Santaella Carlo, and endorsed by a panel of the Court of Appeals, for which the journalist filed a Certiorari before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The resolution establishes that the document is confidential because it is part of the fiscal summary of the Department of Justice and therefore the doctrine of fair and true reporting does not apply.
ASPPRO expressed concern about the paralyzing effect or “chilling effect” that sustaining the order would have on informants who reveal official information to journalists in order to uncover irregularities in public services. The plaintiff argues that the source must be revealed so that he can testify in the civil trial without establishing what, if anything, that information would contribute to proving the alleged defamation of the media outlet.
“Yes, the Supreme Court has a great challenge before it. If the order to reveal a journalistic source is ratified, it would be sending a message that discourages citizens from denouncing possible acts of corruption for fear of reprisals and sanctions since nothing assures them that their identity will be protected,” Suárez insisted. “The intention is not only to paralyze potential confidants, but also journalists, to prevent stories from being published even with official documents. This ‘chilling effect’ is detrimental to democracy, good governance, and oversight that promotes accountability.”
For ASPPRO, the duration or extension of an investigation can be influenced by the intention of keeping something hidden from the people that they should know, and having a precedent that a journalist was forced to reveal a source, who was later punished with reprisals, no one would dare to bring acts of corruption to the press.
“The fact that the courts have determined that this document is confidential because it is part of the fiscal summary and therefore could not be published, promotes that whoever does not want something to be known will only have to sit in on the investigation,” Suárez said. “Not concluding it is enough.”
In the balance of the published stories, the ASPPRO believes that the journalists fairly and adequately reported the information based on what the document said and their offering the accused four opportunities to give his version. They even culminated the case by following up and publishing that the Office of the Special Independent Prosecutor Panel closed the investigation, determining that prosecutor Torres’s payment to PREPA employees was for some repairs and not for reconnecting the electrical service after Hurricane Maria.