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US bloggers set for journalistic shield

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A US bill that would shield journalists, including bloggers, from revealing their sources has cleared the House Judiciary Committee, an important stage in becoming law. There is already legislation in the UK which protects journalists and bloggers.

The US Free Flow of Information Act protects journalistic sources generally, but does include several exceptions regarding terrorism, national security, imminent death and trade secret leaks.

The US case has been championed by Republican Rich Boucher in the wake of several recent high profile federal court cases in which journalists were threatened with or actually forced to serve time in jail if they did not overturn confidential sources.

More than 30 US states already have shield laws on the statute books, and the new bill is an attempt to provide the same protection at the federal level.

There were concerns that the initial version of the bill would apply to all bloggers – but now the definition of a journalist has been narrowed.

The modified bill which passed the committee on 2nd August included a provision that limits its protections to those who make "financial gain or livelihood" from their journalism.

This essentially means that most individual bloggers, who may make a small income from Google adverts, seem unlikely to get protection – though this will depend on how broadly the courts interpret "financial gain".

The US Society of Professional Journalists pushed to keep the definition as broad as possible. A spokesman said: "While it's important to distinguish responsible journalists from casual bloggers, the more narrow the language defining who is a journalist, the less impact the bill will have."

Boucher told the committee that "the best information about corruption in government or misdeeds in a private organisation will come from someone on the inside who feels a responsibility to bring that information to light." He argued that such whistle-blowers will not come forward unless they know their confidentiality will be respected.

More than 40 US media companies and journalism bodies agreed. In supporting the bill, the Newspaper Association of America, said: "The journalist is becoming the first stop, rather than the last resort, for civil litigants and prosecutors attempting to obtain the identity of confidential sources."

The Bill will need approval from the House of Representatives and Senate before it becomes law.

In the UK, the Contempt of Court Act 1981 protects journalists and uses language that is likely to extend this protection to bloggers. It states: "No court may require a person to disclose, nor is any person guilty of contempt of court for refusing to disclose, the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime."

One of the highest profile UK cases under this Act was in 1983 when the Guardian newspaper was forced to reveal Sarah Tisdall as the source of leaked documents detailing when American cruise missile nuclear weapons were due to arrive on British soil. The Guardian's argument that it was protected by the Act was rejected.

Journalists are also expected to comply with the National Union of Journalists' Code of Conduct which states that journalists must "[Protect] the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of [their] work".

See: The US bill

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