A US congressional panel on Wednesday voted, against the Bush administration’s wishes, to shield journalists including advertising-supported bloggers from having to reveal their confidential sources in many situations.
This is a major milestone in the ongoing battle between freedom of the press and government control. In March 2005, a California judge asked 3 bloggers to reveal their sources. Even Time magazine had to bow down. Coincidentally, this comes at the same time that the House of Lords in the UK sided with a freelance journalist, who has fiercely refused to reveal his sources, in one of the country’s longest legal battle of seven-and-a-half years.
The Free Flow of Information Act compels journalists to reveal their source only under exceptional circumstances.
This is a sensitive issue and has been debated to a great extent, with the focus being on the question: are bloggers journalists? Now that the reporters privilege has been extended, this question assumes paramount significance. This privilege is accorded only to reporters, priests, lawyers, and therapists. As per a Pew survey in July 2006, 12 million Americans have a blog, and one-third of them consider it as journalism. Extending this privilege will make a vast section of the population untouchable for investigations.
Let’s take an example from The Brain Chimney: Caught In The Crossfire
This is my friend’s story, who agreed to let me post it on my blog very reluctantly, fearing there might some danger to him. On his request, I’m not sharing his name or the name of the village.
I think I was in 8th grade then, I was getting ready to go to school at 6 AM. We heard a couple of rounds being fired. I was scared to death. I started cycling to school, very reluctantly. On the way, I saw two CRPF soldiers lying in a pool of blood. The Naxals (Maoists now) had shot them. The soldiers begged for their lives before being shot. But that wasn’t my first tryst with terror. It is replete with such incidents. Life was never easy for the 60,000+ inhabitants of our village.
The story goes on to describe how the villagers are caught between the brutalities of both the Maoists and the Police in (presumably) some north-eastern region of India. If this story were about a town in the US, there would be a public outcry over it. The law enforcement authorities will then force the blogger to reveal his friend’s name, so that they can take the necessary action. The blogger will have to comply. Why? Because his blog does not have any advertisements!
How correct is it to distinguish bloggers with ads as journalists and others as not?
What about India? The Reporters Without Borders Annual 2007 report on India reveals:
Prahlad Goala, working on a regional daily in Assam State in the north-east, was killed after writing articles exposing nepotism on the part of a local official. Also, in the north-east, a bureau chief escaped a murder attempt by an armed communist group. A young correspondent for a regional newspaper in Maharashtra State, central India, Arun Narayan Dekate, was stoned to death by gangsters he had named in his articles.
In India, you don’t ask for sources. You eliminate the journalist. Period. However, this is not the legal approach. Consider the legal approach:
The authorities in Chhattisgarh State, east-central India, badly hit by a Maoist revolt, sacrificed press freedom to the fight against this new “terrorism”. A security order was adopted which allowed imprisonment from one to three years, for journalists meeting Maoist rebels. A score of reporters were assaulted or threatened with death by police officers supposed to counter the Maoist influence.
Clever politicians ‘get perturbed’ over the courts indiscriminately using their power of contempt to reveal sources, not while campaigning, but when talking to journalists during a seminar on “the use of law as an instrument of harassment”.
India has a long way to go. The Free Flow of Information Bill is not without flaws, as some thorny issues still persist. But it is a step in the right direction.
Image: Logo of the Inter American Press Association
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