House OKs media shield
Abercrombie votes against a measure to protect sources
Hawaii Congressman Neil Abercrombie was the only Democrat to vote against a media shield bill overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The House voted 398-21 yesterday in favor of the right of reporters to protect the confidentiality of sources in most federal cases. However, reporters could still be compelled to disclose information on sources if that information is needed to prevent acts of terrorism or harm to national security.
The White House threatens to veto the bill, which it says would encourage leaks of classified information.
Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, voted for the bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill earlier this month, but it is uncertain whether the full Senate will vote on it this year.
Abercrombie spokesman Dave Helfert said the Hawaii congressman voted against the bill because he believes freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment and doesn't need a shield law.
When Abercrombie was in the Hawaii Legislature, he introduced a bill for a state shield law but wound up voting against it because journalists convinced him such a law is not necessary, Helfert said.
Advocates of press freedom have pushed the issue this year in the wake of several high-profile cases, including subpoenas for reporters to testify in a probe into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.
Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days in 2005 for refusing to identify which Bush administration officials had talked with her about CIA agent Valerie Plame.
"America is not a country where journalists should be jailed," said Clint Brown, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "This bill will allow the working press and those acting as journalists to serve society without fear of reprisal or intrusion from overzealous prosecutors."
Supporters pointed to press reports on Abu Ghraib, clandestine CIA prisons and shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as examples where source confidentiality was crucial.
"Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and it is fundamental to our security," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
More than 50 news outlets, including the Associated Press, support the bill.
The Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are on record as opposing the legislation, saying it would make it nearly impossible to enforce federal laws pertaining to the unauthorized release of classified information. Justice also said the bill's definition of who is a journalist is too broad.
The Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that journalist-source relationships were not protected under the Constitution, and currently reporters have no privileges to refuse to appear and testify in federal legal proceedings. The situation is different in state courts, with 33 states having media shield statutes and 16 others with judicial precedents protecting reporters.
The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter Nelson Daranciang contributed to this report.