Federal Shield Law Would Enhance U.S. Press Freedom

Washington

Freedom House urges the U.S. Senate to strengthen press freedom and governmental accountability by sending a bipartisan bill that would create a qualified federal shield law to the White House without further delay.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today took up the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect journalists from prosecution for refusing to reveal confidential sources in most cases. The House of Representatives passed a version of the bill in March, but some senators are trying to weaken the legislation. The bill, first proposed in 2005, follows a rise in subpoenas to reporters during the Bush administration.

"The right of American citizens to know about critical issues, such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the government's warrantless wiretapping, is strengthened when journalists can perform their watchdog role without fear of prosecution," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "An informed citizenry is vital to democracy and helps keep government accountable." 

The Senate bill already contains a number of conditions and qualifications to protect national security. For example, information gained from government-designated terrorist organizations or agents of foreign powers is not covered. The bill also contains exceptions for some criminal investigations and civil cases in which information obtained under a promise of confidentiality cannot be acquired by other means.

Currently, 49 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws or operate under court rulings that grant journalists a privilege similar to those enjoyed by clergy, lawyers, therapists and their clients. Wyoming is the only holdout. However, these protections only apply to local and state cases, not federal ones.

In recent years, a number of journalists have been fined and/or jailed at the federal level for refusing to reveal their sources. Last year, a U.S. district judge ordered former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to pay fines of up to $5,000 per day as long as she refused to hand over her notes in former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill’s Privacy Act suit against the government. Contempt charges against her were eventually dropped. In 2007, blogger Josh Wolf became the longest-imprisoned journalist in U.S. history for serving 226 days in federal custody for refusing to hand over videotapes he recorded of a 2005 demonstration in San Francisco.

"The Senate bill has been carefully crafted to balance public security with Americans' right to hold their government accountable," said Windsor. "By passing this law, the United States can send a powerful message to other countries that freedom of the press is an essential pillar of democracy."

The adoption of this measure would be an important step toward strengthening the U.S. press freedom environment. Freedom House's annual press freedom survey ranks the United States as Free, placing 24th overall, on par with Lithuania and the Czech Republic. The United States is rated Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.

To learn more about the United States, read:

Freedom in the World 2009: United States
Freedom of the Press 2009: United States
Today's American: How Free?

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in the United States since 1972.

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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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