United States - Senate urged to stand by its own version of proposed shield law despite threat of presidential veto

    MONTREAL, Oct. 18 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders hails a House
of Representatives vote on 16 October approving, by a very large majority, a
proposed Free Flow of Information Act that would protect journalists from
having to reveal their confidential sources to federal courts.
    The press freedom organisation nonetheless hopes that a more ambitious
version of the bill before the Senate is the one that is finally adopted. It
is also concerned about the threat of a presidential veto that was brandished
after the 16 October vote.
    "The lower house vote is an important step towards ending the absurd
status quo," Reporters Without Borders said. "It is impossible to continue
justifying the fact that legislation in 32 states and the District of Columbia
recognises that the press has at least a relative right to the protection of
sources, while federal legislation does not.
    "This untenable situation made it possible for journalists who refused to
identify their sources or turn over their notes to be jailed by federal judges
on the grounds that national security was in danger, even if their work had
nothing to do with national security."
    Reporters Without Borders added: "We nonetheless regret that the bill
approved on 16 October made too many concessions to a federal government that
has restricted civil liberties and is still threatening to veto it. We think
the version that has been drafted in the Senate is more ambitious and we urge
senators to stick to it."
    The proposed law, known as a "shield law," was passed by the lower house
by 398 votes to 21 on 16 October after being approved by the House judiciary
committee on 1 August. A different version was adopted by the Senate judiciary
committee on 4 October.
    Both versions grant journalists "qualified privilege" - not an absolute
one - as regards the protection of their sources. In other words, they would
still have to identify their sources to federal courts in certain
circumstances. In the version approved by the House, the confidentiality of
journalists' sources would be overridden in the following cases:
    - in a criminal investigation, if there are grounds for thinking that
"the testimony or document sought is critical to the investigation or
prosecution or to the defence against the prosecution or to the successful
completion of the matter;"
    - "disclosure of the identity of (the) source is necessary to prevent an
act of terrorism against the United States or its allies" or in case of
"significant and articulate harm to the national security;"
    - "to prevent imminent death or significant bodily harm;"
    - "to identify a person who has disclosed a trade secret" or
"individually identifiable health information;"
    - in cases in which "the public interest in compelling disclosure of the
information or the document involved outweighs the public interest in
gathering or disseminating news or information" - the notion of "public
interest" here clearly being a problem.
    The House version would also restrict this qualified privilege to persons
who earn a "substantial portion" of their livelihood from reporting or do it
for "substantial financial gain." This would exclude amateur bloggers and
journalism students. Protection of sources would not apply in federal courts

    - any representative or agent of a foreign power
    - any organisation designated as a foreign or local terrorist

    The version approved by the Senate judiciary committee defines
journalists in a less restrictive manner and would in principle apply to all
those "engaged in journalism" without necessarily being paid for it. The
exclusions regarding criminal activity would also apply to prevention of
kidnapping as well as death and bodily harm. On the other hand, it does not
impose any other restriction mentioned in the House version.

For further information:

For further information: Emily Jacquard, secretary general, Reporters
Without Borders Canada, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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