Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Urge the Senate to Pass the Federal Shield Law

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will be meeting this week to decide on the fate of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, HR 2102, SB 1267 which will guarantee immunity from prosecution to journalists who refuse to compromise the confidentiality of their sources in federal court proceedings. This is an essential piece of legislation, and one that must not get lost in the shuffle of breaking news, or the noose of government control over the press and the media will be allowed to tighten exponentially.

While 49 states now have shield laws which affirm that communications between reporters and their sources are as privileged as those of attorneys and their clients, this protection applies only to state, and local cases, not federal cases. (SPJ). Passage of this bill will prevent any federal prosecutor from bringing a journalist before a grand jury again, and coercing him to reveal the identity, or confidential information given him by his source. Passage of this bill will preclude any federal judge from holding in contempt, and issuing jail time, to a reporter who refuses to compromise the confidentiality of their source.

This legislation clearly stipulates that a journalist can only be forced to divulge this privileged relationship under rigorous, and extreme conditions such as if the court considers it necessary in order to "prevent imminent and actual harm to national security," or "imminent death or significant bodily harm." What's more, anyone who is involved with the "gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news and information for dissemination to the public" will be considered a "journalist," and will be shielded from prosecution for refusing to comply with a federal court's demand for naming names, or supplying documents.

As you know, the past seven years has seen an unprecedented number of freedom of information act requests. Clearly, the only way we have been able to unearth what this administration has been up to has been through the use of FOIA. Ironically, though, the Bush regime, which has distinguished itself by its unparalled, and continuous withholding of information, documents, testimony, in defiance of congressional subpoenas, as well as its willful, and arrogant, destruction of millions of White House e-mails, has hauled more reporters before grand juries, and placed them behind bars for refusing to violate their professional guidelines than any administration before it.

At a time when a record number of journalists have been killed, 75 last year alone making 2006 the deadliest year for journalists on record, we must urge the Senate to pass this federal shield law not merely to empower reporters, and a free press, but to empower each and every one of us; to give us back the truth of our elections and our wars.

Nearly one year ago to the day, half a world away, Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her elevator, after having written a scathing expose of torture, and prisoner abuse by her government in Chechnya. We are no closer to knowing who killed her today. And, right here in our own backyard, Oakland Post editor, Chauncey Bailey, was brutally slain only feet away from his office. It's alleged that his killing had to do with his investigation of a black Muslim splinter group. It is unacceptable in a free society, in any society free or otherwise, in anything that remotely resembles "civilization," however uncivil, that a reporter should be savagely sacrified in the name of perpetuating silence, or a culture of blindness, one that thrives in secrecy and denial.

That Richard Nixon would never have been forced to resign, in disgrace, over Watergate had it not been for the tireless work of two intrepid Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, is widely known. That these reporters would never have heard a peep from Deep Throat were they not able to guarantee him, and their other sources, that their identities would be held in strictest confidence.

What better way to pay tribute to a tragically murdered journalist, in Russia, than by restoring dignity to a profession that has increasingly come under fire, and under manipulation by a government not unlike that of Vladimir Putin's, one that has repeatedly demonstrated how it would like to stifle not merely dissent, but the free flow of information.

It's up to us to ensure that the legacy of the 43rd president of the United States isn't death of the First Amendment by strangulation. He took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to dismember it. Contact your Senators now, and urge them to provide a federal shield for those who, in the tradition of the Japanese reporter shot dead in Burma, spend their last moments on earth taking photographs so that generations from now, people will know what really happened. Urge your Senator to pass this legislation because the truth, to you, is that important, too.