Congress must pass law to shield press

In America, you can go to jail for doing your job. That's the message being sent by a federal appeals court, which recently upheld an earlier court decision ordering two reporters to disclose their sources to a grand jury or face up to 18 months in jail.

Forty-nine states, including New Jersey, and the District of Columbia offer journalists legal protection from just such a scenario. The shield laws in the states where the two reporters are based, New York and Washington, are among the strongest.

There's a good reason for these laws.

Journalists need to be able to guarantee sources that their identities will remain confidential when there's no other way to get the story. Sources have a right to know this bargain will be kept.

It must be in order for readers to have access to investigative journalism that exposes wrongdoing and challenges the status quo. Anything less than that compromises the First Amendment guarantee of a free press. And without a free press, the public can't make informed decisions - about politics, economics and the myriad other areas people turn to news outlets to learn about.

In response to a burst of recent cases in which reporters have been jailed or threatened with jail for failure to disclose their sources, several legislators - Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the bipartisan team of Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rich Boucher, D-Va. - have introduced federal bills that would shield journalists from this demand.

Congress should pass a shield law.

With such a law in place, the two reporters in the recent appeals-court case would have been spared their ordeal.

Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times are refusing to say who told them the identity of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame. The theory is that the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity because her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger, wrote a newspaper opinion piece contradicting President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the West African country.

The information about Plame was classified, so anyone who knowingly disclosed it could be guilty of a federal crime. The grand jury investigating the leak has demanded that Cooper and Miller reveal their sources or go to jail.

More Orwellian still is the fact that Miller never even wrote a story based on the leak, though she did some background reporting. It's unclear how the grand jury found out about it.

Commendably, The New York Times and Time have vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary and to push for passage of federal protections.

Meanwhile, the conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak - who broke the Plame leak in a 2003 story in which he claimed "two senior administration officials" told him she was a CIA agent - appears to have escaped unscathed.

Perhaps Novak revealed his sources to the grand jury. It's impossible to know, because he hasn't said one way or the other.

What is clear, though, is that the government is going after Miller and Cooper - who also wrote a story about the leak - for a crime they didn't commit and that may have been committed by officials of that same government.

The only crime Miller and Cooper are guilty of is doing their jobs.

Copyright © 2005 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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