Journalism has always carried an element of danger within it. Cracking any big story leaves them open to harassment that ranges from criminal to governmental. However, harassment is one thing, jail and torture is quite another. And around the globe, journalists have been experiencing a direct crackdown on what they are allowed to say, where they are allowed to go and what they write can leave them open to arbitrary arrest.
One case that has received considerable coverage is the Al Jazeera Journalists who have been imprisoned in Egypt for more than 100 days. What was their supposed crime? Ties to some of the Muslim Brotherhood members. Although none of this has been substantiated by any documents or proof, that’s not really what matters. All that Egypt is doing, and accomplishing, is showing journalists that they don’t have any power.
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In Ukraine, a number of journalists who were captured and tortured have been able to tell their story. They talk of their press passes and equipment being confiscated and being marked as terrorists for their work.
In Uganda, a recent proposal came to light that requires journalists to pay into a government-sponsored accreditation. Although the price is minimal (about $50 USD), the process of review is what really disturbs journalists. The government will read through your stories, and if you pass their test, you can remain working with the approval of the government.
However, journalism taking a hit in war-torn or dictatorial states is, well, nothing that new. We all know that when civil liberties are curtailed, free speech is often the first to go. But what about what we’re doing right now, in the United States?
In the USA, it’s well known that the right reporter can bring down an administration. For instance, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and the Washington Post managed to bring investigations during the Watergate Scandal that ended Nixon’s Presidency. The ability to reach the upper echelons of society with independent and investigative reporting has remained an unofficial cornerstone of our checks and balances.
Which is why the Journalists Shield Law should scare you.
While the name makes it seem like a great idea, in reality the Journalist Shield Law poses a threat to free journalism in the States. It works like this: unless you are a journalist covered by a traditional media outlet, the government can subpoena you to reveal your sources. They define a ‘covered journalist’ as such:
“A ‘covered journalist,’ defined as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have to have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years. It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years. A federal judge also would have the discretion to declare an individual a ‘covered journalist’ who would be granted the privileges of the law.”
Then the US Government can and will be allowed to take a journalist’s sources or, if they refuse, they’ll face prosecution and jail time. In reporting, covering sources is absolutely essential to gaining the trust of high level and low level informants. Someone with information on corruption, in say, USAID, would never spill the beans if the US government could then get their hands on the source, and smoke them out like a rat.
Much of this blowback is against the Wikileaks scandal, of course, but it is also against young, modern media which many in positions of power find tricky to deal with. How do you go after an independent blog that posts once-classified information? If Feinstein has her way, through prosecution.
This leaves much of the journalistic community living between the margins of adequate protection. Despite the dubiousness of mainstream media in the eyes of the public, there are thousands of independent journalists who write for a bevy of magazines and media houses, putting their life at risk to uncover some of the most important stories of our time.
Such laws put their profession at risk, and if we do want journalists feeling open to pursue top level scandals and cover ups, we need to ensure their protection, not strip it away, bit by bit.