Today in the United States, there is no legislation that allows bloggers to protect their sources. Yet bloggers have become a great way for the public — and journalists in particular — to keep informed about important topics. A survey from Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research released on September 22 found that 66 percent of journalists use blogs to assist in their reporting. This means blogs play an important role in newsgathering and the press. So why not legally protect bloggers and citizen journalists by allowing them to use anonymity and protect their sources?
The Case of Josh Wolf
The U.S. judicial system has already had one case that dealt with a blogger trying to protect his sources. The 2005 case of blogger Josh Wolf also emphasized the importance of online information to society. In July of that year, Wolf filmed a G8 protest in San Francisco. At one point during the protest, a police car was damaged during a clash between protesters and police. A cable station later aired some of the footage that Wolf posted on his blog, and it was then picked up by local affiliates of the national networks. Although Wolf denied having footage of the damaged car, a federal judge ordered him to hand over all of his unedited footage to a grand jury investigation.
Wolf refused on the basis of his rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and a California shield law that allows journalists to refuse to name sources or surrender unpublished material and notes. He was sent to prison for a month.
As much as Wolf spending time in jail was unjust, imagine what would have happened if Wolf wasn’t a journalist and couldn’t argue his right to protect his sources? He would have been forced to give up his footage and thus become an accomplice in the arrest of protesters.
Usually bloggers don’t have the same legal recourse or access to advice as journalists. They often act and publish as individuals, and are not necessarily supported by a journalism organization. In France, for example, some bloggers had to shut down their blogs because they couldn’t afford the legal fees associated with defending their work.
Problems with Proposed Shield Law
As of today, 37 states have shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources. On the federal level, a bi-partisan bill called the Free Flow of Information Act was first introduced in 2006 and was passed by the House earlier this year. However, the current draft has not passed in the Senate because of what some consider to be national security concerns. Even President Obama, who supported the bill as a senator, now seems to have changed his mind.
Negotiations are ongoing in the hope of finding a compromise. But even if the law is adopted, it won’t help citizen journalists protect their sources. The bill currently defines a journalist as a person who:
(iii) obtains the information sought while working as a salaried employee of, or independent contractor for, an entity—
(I) that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means; and
(aa) publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical;
(bb) operates a radio or television broadcast station, network, cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier;
(cc) operates a programming service; or
(dd) operates a news agency or wire service;
As of now, one of the legislators’ biggest reasons for not including citizen journalism in that definition is that it could allow bloggers to remain anonymous.
The Anonymity Issue
Reporters Without Borders deals with issues related to anonymity almost every day. Being anonymous on the web has unfortunately become synonymous with behaving in a cowardly fashion, or posting offensive comments. But in many countries, anonymity is all about protecting the security of bloggers who risk their lives in order to publish information.
In Saudi Arabia, the use of real names online is very recent because most bloggers there are afraid of being arrested if they criticize the government. American citizen journalists don’t face these kind of restrictions or threats. For most of us living in the U.S., anonymity is not a matter of personal security.
But consider the example of Twitter user Elliot Madison. He was arrested by the FBI and charged of hindering prosecution after he allegedly used the social networking site Twitter to help protesters evade police at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. Madison was giving the location of the riot police on the ground, but so too were reporters and news helicopters. His arrest is certainly of concern, and it could have been avoided if he had the option of protecting his anonymity.
Legislators should add protection for citizen journalists and their sources to the Free Flow of Information Act. Otherwise, one of the key differences between journalists and citizen journalists will be that the latter must operate with no protection for themselves or their sources.