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The column by The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on Sunday makes a compelling case for a federal shield law. Click image to enlarge.
THE NEED FOR A FEDERAL shield law that protects journalists from having to reveal their anonymous sources is more urgent than ever.
The relentless persecution of government whistleblowers by the Obama administration is drying up sources of vital information. Many are fearful of communicating with journalists, who increasingly are being forced to divulge their anonymous sources.
The case was eloquently put on Sunday by the public editor of The New York Times.
In A Blow for the Press, and for Democracy Margaret Sullivan recounts how NYT investigative reporter James Risen has been persecuted for almost a decade as the CIA tries to find out who leaked information to him about Iran’s search for weapons.
“Just over a week ago, another blow came: a federal appeals court panel ruled 2 to 1, against his effort to avoid testifying in the government’s case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. official charged with leaking secret information about the matter,” Sullivan reported.
Judy Miller went to prison for 85 days for refusing to reveal her anonymous source. But she was no hero.
Ironically, another New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, back in 2005 was sent to jail for 85 days for refusing to testify about her source in the exposure of CIA Agent Valerie Plame.
But Miller did so much damage through her erroneous reporting on Iraq, that sympathy for her was mixed at best.
I blogged about her in detail May 6 in “Who caused more harm at The New York Times in 2003?”
But there are other cases, equally compelling.
Two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle who broke open the steroids scandal at the San Francisco Giants, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, almost went to prison in 2007 for trying to protect the source of a grand jury transcript on the case that they obtained. Read about it here.
The two were saved from prison time, however, when the source came forward and identified himself. He was an attorney involved in the case.
If they had been charged, instead, in a California court, they might have been afforded some protection from the California Shield Law.
According to the First Amendment Project, “The California Shield Law provides legal protections to journalists seeking to maintain the confidentiality of an unnamed source or unpublished information obtained during newsgathering.”
But the issue that seems to be holding up a federal equivalent, who exactly is a journalist, is ducked by the California law.
Here is what the the First Amendment Project says on the point:
“The Shield Law protects a “publisher, editor, reporter, or other person connected with or employed upon a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service…”
The key concept is “employed.”
Defining a journalist as one who receives a paycheck from an established organization is no longer adequate.
This issue was discussed in detail on this blog on July 10 in “Debate rages over who is a journalist.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might be protected under a federal shield law.
Is Edward Snowden a journalist? What about Julian Assange? Should WikiLeaks be protected by a shield law?
The U.S. Senate got hung up on this very issue in 2010. It was close to passing a federal shield law (which already been approved by the House) when WikiLeaks burst onto the scene with its release of thousands of secret U.S. government documents.
Senators balked at providing WikiLeaks protection from revealing its sources – and the bill died in committee.
It is time to resurrect it.
The New York Times urged this in a July 15 editorial: New Rules Protecting News Media
“Congress should pass a law shielding journalists from government investigators,” the Editorial Board wrote.
It is correct.
The time has come for federal protection for journalists, or the American public will never know what it does NOT know because whistleblowers fear reporters will be compelled to reveal confidential sources.
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