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Journalists' sources protected in crucial hearing in Victoria, Australia

This statement was originally published on meaa.org on 9 December 2015.

In a significant victory for press freedom, the responsibility of journalists to protect their confidential sources has been upheld. The hearing, in the Supreme Court of Victoria, was the first test of Victoria's journalist shield laws and the decision is important for public interest journalism because it acknowledges that journalists must protect the identity of sources who have asked to have their identity protected.

The hearing was an application as part of a defamation action brought by Antonio Madafferi against The Age. At stake was whether a journalist should be compelled to reveal their confidential sources and whether there would be adverse consequences if they were forced to do so. MEAA Media members are bound by MEAA's Journalist Code of Ethics, which requires that where confidences are accepted, they must be respected "in all circumstances".

Madaferri claims he was defamed by imputations contained in a series of stories published in The Age by the newspaper's investigative journalists into allegations of misconduct involving the Calabrian community in Australia. Madaferri claimed the articles carried imputations of violent criminal conduct including murder, extortion and drug trafficking and alleged that he was the head of the mafia in Melbourne who had paid bribes and provided corrupt donations to the Liberal Party.

The Age and its journalists pleaded qualified privilege defences based on the implied constitutional freedom of communication on matters of government and politics. Age journalist and MEAA member Nick McKenzie, a seven-time Walkley Award winner, deposed that the defendants had promised all the confidential sources that their identities would not be disclosed.

In his ruling on the application for the journalists' to be compelled to reveal their sources, Justice John Dixon found that it was reasonable for police to suspect Madafferi had put out a $200,000 "hit" on a man Madaferri believed was providing information to The Age.

In an affidavit McKenzie told the court that a detective had informed him about an alleged murder contract taken out on an alleged source for The Age's stories. Justice Dixon accepted that the journalist was fearful "of very serious adverse consequences if his sources are named… The exacerbation or escalation of that genuine fear would be a very serious consequence of disclosure."

The judge dismissed Madaferri's application, saying he did not believe the identity of The Age's sources was critical to Madafferi's defamation case which is set begin on August 1 2016.

McKenzie said: "It was vital that we win this case, which was brought by an alleged senior Mafia figure in an attempt to discover my sources. The case involved allegations that police were investigating a murder contract put out on the life of a suspected source.

"The judge agreed with Fairfax that our sources should be protected," he said.

"This is a major win for Australian journalism and the ability for reporters to protect our sources when we expose alleged organised crime, political lobbying and other matters of public interest. The court has acknowledged the important role of journalism and the protection of confidential sources and the case will hopefully help protect other journalists from unjust source discovery applications," McKenzie said.

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