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Police officer poses as reporter to find leak in criminal investigation; practice puts media in danger, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemns a decision by the sheriff's department in Onslow County, North Carolina, to have an undercover police officer pose as a "Newsweek" reporter to find who was leaking information from the district attorney's office about an ongoing criminal investigation.

"An officer posing as a reporter places members of the media in danger and undermines their credibility," the press freedom organisation said. "How can confidential sources trust to talk to the media after third parties take such actions, blurring the limits between the media's news gathering process and law enforcement activities? 'Newsweek''s and the entire profession's reputation could have been harmed by the use of such tactics to investigate leaks."

Reporters Without Borders added: "Confidentiality of reporters' sources is a cornerstone of investigative journalism and the American people's right to be informed. We are outraged that the sheriff's department circumvented the well-established North Carolina shield law protecting reporters' sources and obtained access to a source by deceiving a local reporter and using 'Newsweek''s name without their permission. We urge the sheriff's department to conduct an internal investigation. The officers involved should be held accountable for this grave ethical lapse and the department should adopt clear guidelines to prevent any recurrence."

The case centres on the criminal investigation into the death of US Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, in which another marine, Cpl. Cesar Laurean, faces murder charges.

Capt. Rick Southerland of the sheriff's department became suspicious after inside information about the investigation appeared in "Off the Cuff," a blog kept by Lindell Key, a reporter for the "Jacksonville Daily News" who has been following the investigation.

Southerland told Reporters Without Borders in a phone interview that the sheriff's department has different ways of going about this type of investigation, but in this particular case, having an officer pose as a "Newsweek" reporter was the best strategy they came up with to find the leak.

"We have every intention to work with our friends in the media," Southerland said. "'Newsweek' has no involvement in this." He added that nobody from the sheriff's department consulted "Newsweek" about the operation.

"Jacksonville Daily News" executive editor and publisher Elliot Potter said that when Key was first approached by the officer posing as a "Newsweek" reporter, he simply provided a phone number, not even a name, for his "contact". He had previously asked the contact, Robert Sharpe, an intern at the district attorney's office, if it would be all right to pass his phone number to another reporter. Sharpe was interested and agreed to talk to the supposed "Newsweek" reporter.

Potter explained the newspaper's position in an editorial published on 15 August 2008 ( ) and voiced regret that the newspaper did not check to confirm whether the purported "Newsweek" reporter was in fact working for the organisation.

Potter said: "Key did what he has done many times over the past few months, as reporters from far and wide have descended on Jacksonville to cover the saga - he tried to help [the supposed 'Newsweek' reporter]. Such cooperation is a staple of the media business. Reporters regularly share information and sources when there is a chance it could accomplish what we're all trying to do - get information out to our audiences."

"Newsweek" wrote to the sheriff's department on 20 August expressing dismay and serious concern about its actions.

This kind of investigative activity is a serious abuse of the essential relationship of trust between the press and its sources," the letter said. "It damages the credibility of news organisations and our ability to report the news fully and fairly. Posing as a reporter brazenly circumvented both the constitutional and North Carolina statutory protections the law provides news organisations and journalists, including the 'Jacksonville Daily News', to protect sources. We fervently hope the Onslow sheriff's department never resorts to such destructive tactics again."

The district attorney office intern, Sharpe, was arrested and charged with embezzlement and misdemeanour larceny after he told the undercover officer he was prepared to provide copies of internal documents relating to the investigation. He was later released under a US$10,000 unsecured bond.

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