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Monday, June 26, 2006

Secret Government or A Free Press?

France, Germany and courts in Japan could teach America a thing or two about one essential aspect of democracy: Their governments are more willing to make sure that journalists have the means to act as watchdogs on the people in power.

Several European nations guarantee that reporters cannot be forced to expose sources to whom they've guaranteed confidentiality. Just last week, Tokyo's high court upheld a Japanese reporter's refusal to reveal the sources of a 1997 news story about a U.S. health food company.

This is just common sense. Those in power keep secrets? sometimes to protect their power, sometimes for financial or political gain, and sometimes for more legitimate reasons, such as national security. The nation's Founders knew this. They created a free press in large part as a check on that sort of power. Reporters and commentators would serve as watchdogs. But that history lesson seems lost on the current administration. In the past two years, federal prosecutors have tried repeatedly to turn those watchdogs into lapdogs, who instead of exposing wrongdoing turn in the people who give them information:

• Last year, two reporters refused for months to name the sources who outed CIA officer Valerie Plame in a convoluted Washington political drama that's still unfolding. Both ultimately capitulated after receiving "waivers" from their sources, to whom they had promised anonymity. One did so after serving 85 days in jail.

• Last year, a Rhode Island TV reporter spent four months confined at home by a judge for refusing to expose a source who had provided a videotape showing alleged corruption by public officials.

• In San Francisco, a federal prosecutor is trying to force two San Francisco Chronicle reporters to reveal sources of secret grand jury testimony used in stories about baseball stars bulking up on steroids. The stories led to hearings in Congress that forced baseball to boost its drug-testing policies.

Examples of what the public could lose through such intimidation are plentiful: In 1995, confidential sources helped lead reporters to unethical practices at a California fertility clinic. Without confidential sources, the nation might not have known about the Watergate scandal abuses. Or the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. Or the Bush administration's wiretapping of ordinary Americans' overseas phone calls without court permission. Or its gathering huge databases of domestic phone records.

The administration tries to dismiss the latter items on that list as threats to national security. But each called for public debate and congressional and judicial review? prisoner abuse in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and invasions of personal privacy by the executive branch without oversight by Congress or the courts that the Constitution intended. There is a long record of publications holding back stories that truly jeopardize security.

Unchecked secret government is far more threatening. What whistle-blower will expose information those in power are hiding if reporters are forced to turn them in?

The best solution is a federal shield law such as the one sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators and under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

Similar laws in 32 states protect confidences shared with reporters, much as laws protect those shared with lawyers or doctors. The federal proposal is carefully qualified to allow for exceptions, for instance, when lives or national security are at stake.

The Founders thought press freedom critical enough to enshrine in the First Amendment. The U.S. government shouldn't have to learn from abroad that it is worth protecting.

© 2006 USA Today
source here...
Secret Government or A Free Press?


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