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September 18, 2013

Shield Law deserves our support

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The Daily Star

---- — The Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill to the U.S. Senate that would help protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources of information.

It’s called a Shield Law, and it is long overdue.

The vote was 13-5, and the reason it has taken so long is that given the social media age in which we live, the panel had a tough time deciding what constitutes a journalist.

The result is legislation that is probably more broad than we might like, but more narrow than that demanded by those who believe anyone sitting in front of a computer should be defined as a journalist.

The version that will go before the whole Senate covers people who have had “an employment relationship” as a journalist for a year over the past 20 years, or three months within the past five years, or someone with a “substantial track record” as a freelance journalist over the past five years.

Student journalists are covered, along with those “whom a federal judge has decided should be able to avail him or herself of the protections of the privilege, consistent with the interests of justice and the protection of lawful and legitimate newsgathering activities.”

“This legislation ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had lobbied for a broader definition of a journalist, said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that both parties can come together and pass it quickly on the Senate floor.”

So do we.

Of course, it may seem natural for a newspaper to be in favor of anything that shields it from the kind of tyranny and threats endured by news media in other country. But this protection isn’t for the benefit of journalists.

It’s for an American public that cherishes its freedoms. Those freedoms include free speech, freedom from fear and the freedom of privacy at a time when so much of our lives are recorded on somebody’s database. 

Organizations such as WikiLeaks won’t be covered, and the “Free Flow of Information Act” wouldn’t provide protection in “classified leak cases when information would prevent or mitigate an act of terrorism or harm to national security.”

So-called citizen-journalists are also excluded, which makes sense.

Why? Because for all the foibles and mistakes the legitimate news media make, what they do is a job that involves training, experience and skill — and accountability. Would you have a “citizen dentist” drill your teeth? How about a “citizen surgeon” operating on your child?

After his Justice Department obtained phone records of the Associated Press, President Barack Obama realized things have gotten out of control. He supports the bill.

Congress should, too.