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Keeping Reporters Out of Jail and On the Beat

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June 3, 2008

By Ilyse Veron, former media reporter for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

Which ACLU Membership Conference speaker — and influential Republican — recently and astutely opined this way in The Washington Post? (Using the hyperlink is cheating.)

The importance of a free press is so woven into the fabric of our history that Americans often take it for granted. But when we observe fledgling democracies around the world, Americans can see just how essential a free media are to democracy — and how easily they can be chilled. If we are to have a free press, it is necessary to protect the relationship between journalists and trusted sources to whom journalists have promised confidentiality. For this reason, every state but Wyoming has established some form of reporters’ privilege.

And the answer is…

Sen. Arlen Specter. Sen. Specter is heading to the membership conference to address the ACLU plenary as reporter shield legislation is under consideration in the Congress. He has been a champion of the Free Flow of Information Act, which is the first reporter shield bill in decades that is close to getting enacted, and he reminds all of us “a media shield law would not primarily be protection for journalists; it would be protection for the public and for our form of government.”

That being said, nationally acclaimed reporters Toni Locy and Jim Risen, who will also be presenting at the conference, know first hand why a media shield law would really come in handy in a very serious way.

As Sen. Specter also noted, “It takes only a few well-publicized cases of the government or federal courts forcing reporters to reveal confidential sources — Time‘s Matt Cooper; former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spending 85 days in jail; or former USA Today reporter Toni Locy being ordered to pay up to $5,000 for each day she remains silent, with no contributions allowed from her employer, family or friends — to chill those who have important things to say.”

Journalists are standing their ground against tough odds.

Today, journalists face more jail time and higher fines than at any other time in American history, often receiving greater punishment than those convicted of the crimes reported by journalists. In recent years over 30 journalists have been jailed for not identifying confidential sources, according to ACLU research, compared to only five convicted under the Sedition Act of 1798.

New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Risen is currently fighting a grand jury subpoena for testimony about his sources for a 2006 book on the CIA called State of War.

Government prosecutors are trying to identify Mr. Risen’s sources for the book as well as for articles he wrote for The Times about the nation’s spy agencies, to determine if any of the sources violated laws on the sharing of classified information.

Clearly journalists need the reporters’ shield bill like the Free Flow of Information Act, which would give them the ability to better protect their sources’ identities in certain circumstances without the fear of jail or steep fines. The Act does provide different rules for situations when the information about sources is essential to our national security or if a criminal act is involved, but it is critical that we all ensure that these rules are not too broad.

If written too broadly the rules could allow the government to use them any time it wants to get information from a reporter.

Send a letter to your senator asking him or her to support the Free Flow of Information Act. Ask your senators to support the meaningful protections for reporters. The House overwhelmingly passed its bi-partisan bill late last year, and we must urge the Senate to do the same now. It is important that any compromise not gut the bill. Of course, the ACLU supports reasonable exceptions for national security or criminal acts but the final bill must give reporters meaningful protection. We need to protect reporters and their sources for democracy to continue to flourish.

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