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US shield law offers no protection for the Dr. Stockmanns of this world

Citizen journalists, bloggers and even poorly paid freelancers will be excluded from the right to protect confidential sources under a new federal US shield law proposal, passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives last week.

There's still a few legal hurdles to pass before the law becomes reality, but it seems likely that the US will end up with a shield law of "limited scope and usefulness", according to David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law project.

Out of touch with reality
Enter Dr. Stockmann, the famous protagonist of Ibsen's Enemy of the People. And no, it's not only the recent problems with contaminated water in the city I live in that makes me think of him. As I've touched upon before, this law proposal is completely out of touch with reality. In one respect it's almost as out of touch with the radically changing media landscape as Ibsen's plot...

In a world where everyone can publish, Ibsen's carefully constructed plot falls to pieces. I don't know about the psychological struggles and emotional turmoil, he might still have to face those, but in today's society Dr. Stockmann could easily bypass corrupt politicians and self-serving editors by uploading a video showing the contamination at the city's prestigious baths to YouTube, or blogging about the evidence.

US shield law would benefit Stockmann's enemies
But this is also where the proposed US shield law complicates things. Let's for the sake of the argument say that a) this takes place in the US and b) that during his two years of research to establish the source of the contamination, Dr. Stockmann talks to sources whose reputation and/or jobs would be at stake should their names be revealed.

Who would stop the doctor's corrupt brother, the mayor, US shield law in hand, from forcing Stockmann, whose only motivation is serving his community and doing the right thing, to reveal his sources?

Not far-fetched
You might think that this literary scenario is far-fetched, but according to Reporters Without Borders: "In the field of human rights, it is citizen journalists and not professional journalists who have been responsible for the most reliable reports and information – the information that has most upset the governments."

Likewise, it's hardly far-fetched to believe that local 'champions' would go to great lengths to expose local misconduct or irregularieties which affect their lives or their community adversly. Social media enables people to do this more effectively than ever, that is why the current wording of the shield law proposal is so misguided.

'We need a shield law for all acts of journalism'
Amy Graham of Poynter's E-media Tidbits writes: as passed by the House, the bill now defines a "covered person" as: "a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person."

This, writes Ardia: "would likely exclude many freelance journalists who must rely on other work to supplement their incomes. Do we really want judges to be deciding whether a journalist is earning enough money to qualify for protection?"

He concludes: "Journalists -- and more importantly, the public -- desperately need a federal shield law. But what we need is a federal shield law that protects all acts of journalism regardless of whether they are done for pay."


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