The House of Representatives passed a measure to protect journalists’ sources and a law went into effect to improve public access to government information. One journalist was killed in 2007 and an Al-Jazeera cameraman, Sami al-Haj, began his sixth year in the Guantanamo prison.
With the release from jail of freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf in April 2007, no other journalists were in jail for refusing to reveal their sources to federal courts. A federal judge dismissed a similar case in March against Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, of the San Francisco Chronicle, after their source revealed his identity himself. The two journalists, who were investigating drugs, had each faced 18 months in prison. Five journalists in Washington DC who had investigated anthrax attacks in 2001 revealed the names of their informants at the request of a federal judge. But the law is changing.
The House of Representatives (lower house of Congress) approved by 398-21 votes on 16 October a “shield law” called the Free Flow of Information Act, giving journalists the right not to reveal their sources at federal level. An amended version of the bill was approved by the Senate judiciary committee on 4 October.
The House version gives journalists an “absolute privilege” in protecting their sources, except when:
in a criminal investigation, 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.
The Senate judiciary committee version defines journalists in a less restrictive manner as all those “engaged in journalism” without necessarily being paid for it.
Another step forward was the signing into law on 31 December of a new Freedom of Information Act, which sets up a hotline for public requests for information from federal agencies, a tracking system for requests once they have been made and an office to mediate in disputes. Federal agencies are required to provide information unless it entails a major national security risk.
President George W. Bush’s signature of the bill came too late to prevent the destruction by the CIA, announced on 15 December, of videotapes of interrogations of prisoners in secret locations and at the Guantanamo detention centre.
Sixth year in Guantanamo
Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj began his sixth year as a prisoner at Guantanamo on 13 June. He was arrested in December 2001 on the Afghan-Panistani border by Pakistani troops, handed over to US forces and sent to Guantanamo in June 2002. He has never been charged with anything. He has been interrogated nearly 200 times. He began a hunger-strike on 7 January 2007 to protest against his imprisonment and for his rights to be respected. He was force-fed several times. His lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, said he had lost 18 kg and had serious intestinal problems. He has also become paranoid and has more and more difficulty communicating normally. His release is cuirrently being negotiated. Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard went to Guantanamo in early January 2008 but was not allowed to see him.
A journalist killed
Chauncey Bailey, editor of the weekly Oakland Post and a well-known leader of the local black community, was shot dead in the street in Oakland on 2 August. A 19-year-old employee of Your Black Muslim Bakery confessed to carrying out the murder and then retracted. He could be tried in 2008.
The Internet and data protection
Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf, 24, agreed to reveal confidential material in exchange for his release on 3 April 2007 after 224 days in prison. He had filmed a protest against the G8 summit meeting in San Francisco in 2005 and refused to hand the film over and testiify in federal court in a case involving slight damage to a police car during the demonstration.
Protection of personal data online is being hotly debated in the US. Yahoo! has set up a fund to compensate families of cyber-dissidents jailed as result of the firm’s collaboration with foreign governments. Chinese blogger and journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison in April 2005 for “illegally disclosing state secrets abroad” by posting on foreign-based websites a “top secret” government note to editors warning journalists against the dangers of social destabilisation and the risks of the return of certain dissidents on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo! had supplied his personal details to the Chinese authorities. Reporters Without Borders suspects the firm of involvement in at least three other cases.