Proposal supported by
Obama is deeply flawed
President Obama addresses the federal shield law (obliquely) at a May news conference. Click image to enlarge.
THERE CAN BE LITTLE debate that the leaking of sensitive government data and the prosecution of those who leaked it has been the top story of the summer.
Day after day, the page one headlines of most newspapers – and the lead story on U.S. television news – has concerned one of the two parallel dramas unfolding before our eyes.
The first and longest running was the trial and sentencing of Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning.
The second has been the pursuit of Edward Snowden, accused of espionage for his revelations about a massive NSA spying operation.
Both of these currents in the news bring into sharp focus the need for protection at the federal level for journalists and their sources.
Without adequate protection, the revelations of such vital public information is sure to dry up; and, indeed, anecdotally at least, it is reportedly doing so.
ALTHOUGH ABOUT 40 STATES have some measure of protection for journalists and their confidential sources, the history of a similar federal law is long and tortuous.
The most recent high profile development occurred in May when President Obama urged Congress to reexamine the issue under pressure after the seizure of records from the Associated Press.
Charlie Savage reported in The New York Times on May 15 about the Obama initiative in
Criticized on Seizure of Records, White House Pushes News Media Shield Law
“Under fire over the Justice Department’s use of a broad subpoena to obtain calling records of Associated Press reporters in connection with a leak investigation, the Obama administration sought on Wednesday to revive legislation that would provide greater protections to reporters in keeping their sources and communications confidential,” Savage wrote.
The Daily Beast story critical of the new federal shield law. Click image to enlarge.
The law Obama wants to focus on is the “Free flow of information act of 2009″ (S 448)
In what was widely seen as an attempt to mollify an angry media establishment after the seizure of records from the Associated Press, at a news conference in May, President Obama urged Congress to pay attention to the issue.
America’s leading journalism organization, the Society of Professional Journalists, has long waged a campaign for a federal shield law, but it has yet to weigh in on the latest version now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The newest incarnation of the bill, however, has drawn howls of protest from around the journalism community for two reasons: the first, its broad exemption for matters relating to “national security,” the second, its definition of who, precisely, is a journalist and therefore covered by the proposed law.
THE LOUDEST CRITICISM, it seems, came in an article by David Freedlander, senior political correspondent with Newsweek & The Daily Beast.
In Media Balks at Band-Aid Shield Law Feedlander writes: “A shield law might protect some reporters, but media critics say the one Obama has proposed is deeply flawed – and won’t make up for snooping on AP reporters.
“By protecting only those journalists who are paid for their work, the Free Flow of Information Act may give some reporters an unfair advantage over their amateur colleagues.”
Freedlander notes that an increasing number of stories are being broken by non-traditional reporters such as Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., who has played a central role in publishing the revelations of Snowden.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would also fit in this category. He published the huge amounts of secret data leaked to him by Chelsea Manning.
Freedlander quoted the President of SPJ:
The Society of Professional journalists campaigns for a federal shield law. Click image to enlarge.
“It is a blatantly political move,” said Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“I don’t know why anyone would think that this [new legislations] would appease those of us who are outraged. I think it is curious that the administration pushed for this the day after – the day after! – it got a black eye for secretly going around obtaining journalists’ work product.”
Savage also reported that there might indeed be a tug of war in the Senate over which version of the shield law to advance.
“The top Democrat on the [Senate Judiciary] committee, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, noted that he had sponsored a version of the Free Flow of Information Act that passed the House twice when it was under Democratic control [in 2009].
“He said he would reintroduce his version, too, and he said he hoped that Republicans – who until recently had called for more aggressive investigations of leaks – would support it.”
Questioned in his May news conference on the issue, President Obama addressed it only obliquely (others, less polite, would say he ducked it completely).
“…[L]eaks related to national security can put men and women at risk…,” he said.
“We also live in a Democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function.
“The whole goal of this media shield law … was finding a way to strike that balance [between national security and press freedom] appropriately.”
An editorial in the Tampa Bay Times on Aug. 16, put it more bluntly. In Journalists need shield law for sources it said: “President Barack Obama came to office promising openness and instead mounted an
unprecedented campaign against anonymous leakers and the journalists who rely on those sources.
“A shield bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate has its flaws, but it may be better than no federal protection. The challenge will be for senators to refine the legislation when they return from their August recess,” the editorial says.
“But there are broad exceptions for national security that could erode those protections [for journalists and their sources].
“Another legislative challenge is defining who is a journalist entitled to the shield in this age of digital media when anyone with a website and a sponsor can claim the mantle.
“An initial effort at crafting a definition already has raised concerns. When the Senate Judiciary Committee debates the issue this fall, senators will have to revisit the difficulty of covering legitimate journalists without including too many who have other agendas.”
At the core of the debate, then are two issues: who is a journalist (and, therefore, who should be protected), and how best to balance national security with a free press.
Let the debate begin, in earnest.
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