Sunshine Week — highlighting potential threats to our personal liberties via government secrecy — just ended. But the erosion of your right to know and thus your right to monitor and maintain your government as a limited one, well, that continues in other forms as well throughout the year.
The glaring lack of a federal “shield law,” which would allow journalists to protect the identities of confidential sources, continues to put reporters in jail or be subject to crippling fines. Their only offense: They sought to protect those who face retribution for revealing the truth about government conduct, some of it illegal.
Two nearly identical bills in Congress — H.R. 2102 and S.2035 are each referred to as the Free Flow of Information Act — would create a limited shield law with exceptions for such rare but important situations as national security, if a crime is about to occur or imminent threat of death or injury.
The House version passed that body and has been awaiting Senate action since October.
Many Americans know the name of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify sources for stories she never even wrote. But there have been other examples in recent years, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, including:
• Providence, R.I., reporter Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV served four months of a home-confinement sentence in 2004 — because he dared broadcast a videotape he received from a source that depicts a city official taking a bribe from an undercover FBI informant. NBC paid $85,000 in fines on behalf of WJAR.
• On March 7 U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton ordered former USA TODAY reporter Toni Locy to start paying up to $5,000 per day in contempt fines out of her pocket. No one may lend or give her money for the fines. Locy refused to identify confidential sources in 2003 stories she wrote about the threat of anthrax being used by terrorists.
Thirty-one states, including Arizona, have shield laws protecting reporters from having to reveal confidential sources to state prosecutors and grand juries and 18 more created the privilege by court decisions. On March 6, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Spector, R-Pa., wrote a letter to Senate leaders of both parties requesting that the proposed federal shield law be considered.
This legislation should become law. Jailing and fining reporters seriously hinders vigorous press coverage of government. But beyond that, the public is denied important information that confidential sources provide toward the exposure of government wrongdoing.