Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Congress to consider federal shield law

Jan McLaughlin gave up on trusting the independence of the mainstream media years ago.

Then she saw journalists from the New York Times and independent Web logs go to jail to protect their sources from federal investigators.

Now the Passaic resident and blogger said she believes that a proposed federal law to shield journalists from divulging their confidential sources in most circumstances could help shore up the eroding integrity of media outlets large and small.

"This shield law, should it be enacted, is the single most important (thing) our government can do to protect democracy in this century," McLaughlin said Tuesday.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee will consider the "Free Flow of Information Act" that will stipulate when courts, special prosecutors and grand juries can compel reporters to testify about secret sources.

The idea has been trotted through Congress' halls hundreds of times in the past four decades, always unsuccessfully.

But the recent incarcerations of journalists and bloggers have added impetus to this push for a law to protect journalists from betraying the confidence of those they rely on for information.

In the 1990s, McLaughlin grew so weary of what she saw as the news media's failings that as an artist she began calling herself a faux journalist, arguing that she'd be better than the real ones. Today she posts her works on a blog she calls "Vlog of a Faux Journalist," sharing her photographs and films on the Internet.

Although she does not think her blog would ever make her a target for prosecution, she does sympathize with those independent "citizen journalists" who have faced pressure to hand over their unpublished works. San Francisco blogger Josh Wolf spent nearly seven months in federal prison for refusing to give prosecutors his raw video of an anti-globalization protest.

"I always carry a camera and an audio recording device," McLaughlin said. "That could put me at risk."

The bill is intended to cover federal courts that aren't protected under present state shield laws. New Jersey has one of the strongest shield laws in the country, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Opponents of past versions of the federal bill saw it as an absolute protection for journalists, setting them above the law. The current proposal creates exceptions in which journalists must testify.

It also protects anyone engaged in collecting and disseminating news, a clause that could cover freelance reporters and some bloggers -- not just those employed by major news groups.

Local congressmen -- including Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, and Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn - are already signing on to the legislation.

"I think the limits seem reasonable. A number of important problems have come to light because of people who only spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity," Rothman said in a statement.

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