Congress must pass a federal shield law

Christian Rodriguez

Christian Rodriguez

In his first day of office on, Jan. 20, 2008, President Barack Obama promised to make his administration the most transparent ever. However, in reality the federal government has been incredibly aggressive in hounding individuals who have leaked classified information and in the name of national security stolen private information from journalists without their knowing or consent.

More than 225 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

We live in an age where every nation is connected by communication technologies and websites like WikiLeaks offer hundreds of thousands of documents just a click away and that are just as accessible to the international public. It is understandable that the United States government may be hesitant to enact a shield law.

However, reporters need to be able to protect their sources that could focus the spotlight on injustices that the average American citizen would otherwise have no idea existed. In order to do so journalists must be able to protect their sources identities and sources have to be confident that the reports are able to do so.

By having such protections in place, whistleblowers can feel confident in reporting such injustices without putting their lives and careers in danger, journalists have to be able to protect the identity of their informants without fear of arrest or incarceration on contempt of court charges.

As it is now journalists have little protection if the federal government corners them with subpoenas forcing them to reveal confidential sources and/or turn over notes, photos, or recording for federal prosecutions.

Journalists seek protection from these subpoenas for a variety of reasons. If journalists cannot guarantee the confidentiality promised to their informants, those sources will refuse to provide information that often is vital to important investigative reporting.

A subpoenas request for confidential, unpublished information also interferes with a journalist’s ability to gather news.

These subpoenas in turn force journalist to become the investigative arms of the government and robs them of their time and money in court proceedings.

Several journalists have already paid the price for upholding their promise of confidentiality. New York Times reporter James Risen was dragged to through court to testify in the criminal trial of former Central Intelligence Agency official Jeffrey Sterling, who has been indicted for leaking classified information to Risen for publication in his book, State of War. The court ruled that Risen did not have the right to keep the identity of his source confidential. Risen has made his stance clear and has vowed to go to prison rather than break his vow of confidentiality in the courtroom.

It’s not only reporters that vulnerable against federal intrusion. Entire news organizations have little protection against the same treatment. A prime example of this is government wiretapping and forced cooperation of Verizon to monitor journalists at the Associated Press.

A few months ago we learned that the Department of Justice, in an unprecedented intrusion on the work of journalists, had obtained records for twenty telephone numbers belonging to the Associated Press or its reporters, spanning from April and May 2012.

The telephone records revealed the phone number of each and every caller on those lines for a period of weeks and therefore the identity of scores of confidential media sources.

This breach of privacy irrevocably damaged the reputation of the Associated Press and violated their right to privacy.

The seizure of these records came to light only because the government has a special set of guidelines that requires it to notify any media organization of a subpoena for its records within (at most) 90 days. The AP only learned of the seizure of its phone records, after the fact, and only because of this special policy.

But the problem of course is that the federal government has an unrestrained ability to monitor journalists without their knowledge and consent.

Journalists would have an incredibly hard time finding inside sources much less a whistleblower with an inside scoop on an administrative scandal if they feel their identities would be revealed.

Protecting the reporters right to grant anonymity to their sources ensures the possibility of discussing important matters of moral, legal and strategic issues without endangering their lives or those of their families.

Without this protection, whenever a source wants to reveal secret information on government activities, he/she has to seriously weigh the consequences for speaking out against an internal injustice.

It is in the best interest of all Americans for journalists to have the right to protect the anonymity of their sources.

Such a law cautions the higher institutions of this country that any unethical actions will be noted and revealed and would prevent criminalization of those who choose to speak out against such acts.

It is this federal protection of journalists that progress as a nation can be made.