- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

COLUMN:

Opinions are running in favor of a reporters shield bill among Washington journalists who normally would hesitate to express personal opinions on political issues.

One reason they like the Senate bill is because it could keep them out of jail.

Currently, reporters who refuse to testify in court about confidential sources for leaked information can be imprisoned until they reveal the identities of informants.

The proposed Free Flow of Information Act would protect reporters from imprisonment unless the issue being investigated involves terrorism, kidnapping or could lead to someone’s death.

Journalists say they need the protection to help them gather information from people who have been unable to get anyone in government to listen to them.

However, without a reporters shield law, they could be forced to decide whether their jobs are worth a criminal record.

An informal survey of Capitol Hill correspondents showed that nearly all of them would be willing to face imprisonment for a good cause.

“If I made a commitment to protect a source, I think it’s imperative to honor that,” said Noam Levey, congressional correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s fundamental to how we do our jobs.”

Ken Strickland, a producer who also reports for NBC News, said he would consider jail rather than revealing a source, but only if he believed the issue were important.

“It depends on the circumstances,” Mr. Strickland said. “I’d have to talk to my network” to determine what to do.

The jail versus disclosure dilemma continues to bedevil the profession, most recently in cases involving New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz.

Miss Miller was imprisoned for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to reveal that Lewis “Scooter” Libby was the source for her story about a controversial CIA leak. She admitted that Mr. Libby was the source and was released from jail only after Mr. Libby publicly acknowledged that he gave Miss Miller the information.

Mr. Gertz has refused to identify sources for his May 16, 2006, story, saying the Justice Department had approved indictments of Chinese-born engineer Chi Mak and three relatives in a conspiracy to export defense technology to China.

A federal judge in Santa Ana, Calif., agreed with Mr. Gertz’s argument that he should not be ordered to reveal the source on First Amendment grounds. However, he still faces a possible federal grand jury indictment.

Miss Miller’s case is a popular cause among First Amendment free press advocates. It also was a major factor in the proposed reporters shield bills in Congress.

“I think she made the right call,” said Jeff Young, Washington correspondent for the radio program “Living on Earth,” which airs on Public Radio International. “You talk about the chilling effect on sources, that’s exactly what it was, and it calls for the need for a shield law.”

Jay Heflin, reporter for Congress Now, an online policy news service, would go to jail rather than reveal sources if he believed it would “help our country,” he said. “At some point, we all become soldiers.”

The Free Flow of Information Act legislation stalled in the Senate last week but is not dead. Instead, senators voted against beginning a debate on the bill until they complete work on energy legislation.

The House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill in October. A debate is required before a vote by the full Senate.

Above the Law runs on Mondays. Call Tom Ramstack at 202/636-3180 or e-mail tramstack@washingtontimes.com.

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