US shield law's qualified privileges would aid journalists both at home and abroad

Frank Smyth [Journalist Security Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists]: "There is nothing that repressive regimes like more than pointing the finger at someone else. Nearly four years ago, after journalists including Judith Miller then of The New York Times were jailed for refusing to reveal sources in response to federal subpoenas, senior government officials in other nations from Venezuela to Cameroon tried to justify their crackdowns against the press by pointing to the journalists behind bars in the United States.

If a bill passed last Monday by the US House of Representatives manages to become law, journalists in this nation not only stand a better chance of staying out of jail. But despots and their cronies around the world will likely have less US journalists behind bars to point to try and deflect attention from themselves.

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 was introduced by Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Adam Schiff (D-CA). Also known as the "shield bill," the legislation would provide a qualified privilege for journalists with exceptions for national security, the prevention of death or bodily harm, or information that is deemed essential in a criminal case or critical in a civil suit, reports the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The bill has its critics. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, argues that its current language [PDF file] is too narrow and would not protect bloggers and others who may provide news without necessarily earning a living from it; The Free Flow of Information Act defines a journalist as someone who regularly gathers information and who earns a substantial portion of their livelihood from doing so.

But a broad coalition of media organizations and groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the RCFP and the ACLU all back the bill nonetheless. "This is not about protecting reporters," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN). "It is about protecting the public's right to know.""

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