Locking up the press

Will Congress protect journalists — or pass a bill too weak to matter?
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sarah@sfbg.com

On Aug. 20 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that video blogger Josh Wolf, who spent 226 days in federal prison in 2006 for refusing to testify before a grand jury and hand over his video of a protest turned violent, had begun working as a reporter with the Palo Alto Daily Post.

"Video blogger gets job as 'real journalist,'<0x2009>" crowed the headline.

The article noted that some critics believe Wolf was a protest participant and not an impartial news gatherer, and accurately observed that his case fueled the debates over what defines a reporter and who deserves to be protected by the reporter's privilege to protect confidential sources.

But it failed to mention that one of Wolf's harshest critics was Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders, nor did it clarify that in recent years several federal courts have found that reporters — all reporters, even from major newspapers — can be forced to testify before grand juries.

California doesn't allow its courts to compel journalists to reveal unpublished information, but the federal government has no such shield law. That's why prosecutors could jail New York Times reporter Judith Miller, charge Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada with contempt, and slap USA Today's Toni Locy with hefty fines — all for refusing to disclose confidential sources and materials.

And as reporters continue to face contempt charges in federal court cases nationwide, Congress has been considering two very different versions of a federal shield bill.

These two versions take widely varying approaches toward who and what is protected. And thanks to Senate Republicans, who blocked all business not related to energy legislation before Congress' August recess, a vote on the Senate bill did not occur at the end of July.

As a result, if the Senate doesn't act by the end of September, both versions of the federal shield will likely die. And, depending on whom you talk to, that may or may not be a good thing.

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (HR 2102), which the House of Representatives passed in October of that year, only protects journalists if their work is done for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain. In other words, no protection for Wolf, for most bloggers, or for many freelancers.

The good news is that the House bill extends protections to any documents or information obtained during the newsgathering process.

By comparison, the Senate bill (S 2035) only protects the identity of confidential sources, and any records, data, documents, or information obtained under a promise of confidentiality.

The Senate shield would cover any journalist who "engages in the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."

But it no longer requires the government to prove by preponderance of evidence that the information it seeks is essential, or that it has exhausted all other methods.