Are Blogging Journalists Shielded?

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.IAPA-Logo

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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  • This has always been a difficult topic for me to form an opinion about. On the one hand, the ideal ‘freedom of the press’ depends on it. On the other hand, there are circumstances that should trump that ideal. This is a tough one.

  • i agree the aikaterine – it is a tough call where it seems two good ideals conflict with each other. Even the case of the Valerie Plame deal, didn’t more than one reporter decide they would rather go to jail than name name a source who allegedly either committed a crime or would lead to the criminal?

    I also thought that “freedom” and responsibility went hand in hand. Maybe a naiive outlook. If a reporter/lawyer/doctor were to know of something criminal from his/her source/client/patient, wouldn’t this sort of conflict arise there too?

  • Aikaterine: Yes, that’s why this one’s something to be ‘unquiet’ about.

    Arun: Nothing naive in your outlook. Journalists fight for this freedom, while always proclaiming that there’s a responsibility involved as well. But it’s not always that simple.

    The reason this freedom is more easily guarded in the case of lawyers, priests, and doctors is because the ability to defend, the religious duty to ‘confess’, and ill-health of a person are all considered as sacred, in an irrefutable way. The ability to become an informer is not.

    I would love to have Nita’s comments on this! Somehow I feel I’m transgressing into her territory of journalism…:-)

  • I believe blogging is different from journalism, because there is a fundamental difference between the two. While a journalist spends his time on the field and gathers information from various sources, blogger has the luxury of googling for information that he wants and making a post with that. Most of the times, the source of this information is the journalist.

    But bloggers in India have a long way to go before they can call themselves journalists. Given the huge number of problems we have, bloggers have too many topics to blog about and that’s a good sign 🙂

  • Mahendra – I tend to be quite if I am confused about my opinion on something. But that might not be a good thing. Talking helps to flush things out.

    Arun: I agree with Mahendra, there is nothing naive in your outlook. Freedom does come with responsibility, and I think that we all to often forget that.

  • Harsha: I agree with you that this is true in most cases. Read the articles I’ve linked to, this topic has been discussed a lot, and there are several other viewpoints beside this one that aren’t untrue either.

    Aikaterine: that’s why this blog, and that’s why this blog post! 🙂

  • Mahendra –

    I am really not sure where I stand on this. But let me see what I can figure out. Bear with me, I am going to type what I am thinking. First, let’s get some definitions down:

    Journalism:

    1 a : the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media b : the public press c : an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium

    If I think that this is a good definition, which I do, then I am going to have to disagree with Harsha. There are bloggers practicing journalism and who are; therefore, journalists.

    So, if bloggers can be considered journalists then I need to think about the competing ideals of “freedom of the press” and the “responsibility of freedom”…
    As with most ethical questions, there are few universals. Is there a circumstance which universally requires giving up a source? The worst case I can think of is one where a child is harmed. If a journalist were to receive a confession from someone who was molesting a child, then I would say that – yes – 100% of the time, the journalist is obligated to give up his source (the perpetrator) in order to protect the child. So, the well being of the child trumps “freedom of the press”. But what is it about a child, as opposed to an adult, that trumps? Should molestation of an adult trump as well? I want to say yes, but only in the case where the source is the person committing the atrocities (i.e. there is a confession).

    What do you think?

  • Aikaterine:

    1. Your definition, as well as the original Bill’s definition, both are good for me.

    2. I also disagree with Harsha, as I noted (in different words) above. There are certainly some bloggers who can be considered journalists. Bloggers received Press Passes in the 2004 US Presidential Elections.

    3. To respond to what Harsha said specifically: not all journalists go out to the field. There can be ‘reporters’ who bring news information, journalists who create drafts, and editors who create the final print copy. Then there are editorials, columns, and what not, that is also considered journalism. Also, a blogger too collects information from various sources. It is ironical that the blogger I’ve showcased in my post as a sample journalist himself doesn’t think so! 🙂

    4. I am more or less comfortable with the exemptions made in the bill, which are wider than your example regarding a child: “cases involving threats to national security, disclosures of trade secrets or personal financial or health information, or a threat of death or significant physical harm.” Your example is covered by the last clause.

    5. I am against differentiating between ad-supported and other bloggers. Not all posts are journalistic in nature. But when a post is, it is, period. The presence or absence of ads shouldn’t make a difference. So I’m of the opinion that the First Amendment privilege should apply to all bloggers.

    6. I sound like being ‘quiet’ all over again. But wait, there’s still one thing nagging me: journalists are held accountable for what they report. They can be sued for libel in case their findings are not true. Should bloggers be subject to the same accountability? That will surely flood the whole country’s prisons! So what do we do?

    Thanks for making this an interesting conversation, btw.

  • Thank you for the compliment, but it was interesting before I posted. Legal accountability is an even tougher question to answer. I think we might get back into a conversation about social pressure vs. legal action. I do not like the idea of taxing our (both of our) legal enforcement system any more than necessary. Let’s face it, they are not doing a great job with enforcing the current laws. But, what other reasonable option is there?

  • Are you suggesting that bloggers be accountable for what they write and be liable to get sued and prosecuted if what they blogged/reported about wasn’t in fact, true?

    There are 1.2 million WordPress blogs already, how many of them would be stating true facts? No country’s legal system would be able to face hundreds of thousands of bloggers.

    It is indeed something to ponder about.

  • Sorry. Thinking further on this, “libel” is 1. a) false publication, as in writing, print, signs, or pictures, that damages a person’s reputation. b) The act of presenting such material to the public.

    Now, if some blogger writes untrue facts about a celebrity or an otherwise authoritative person (say in the scientific field), then I would certainly vouch for that person’s right to sue the blogger for libel.

    It is not true that our (and your) country’s legal system would need to face thousands of bloggers. So I sort of retract the comment above, and am now of the opinion that yes, bloggers should be accountable to the same extent of the law as journalists.

  • i don’t know how i missed this very important post…been hectic lately,just about finding time for my own blog! selfish huh.
    well, i must say I agree with Harsh. bloggers are not journalists. when i am blogging i am not a journalist.
    unless i am doing original reporting. some of my posts are original reporting, like the one i did on the sound baffles for example. that i consider journalism. if any blogger (like jerry one of my co-bloggers on mutiny) does interviews, thats original and thats journalism. my photo essays could be called journalism. even the reproting that mutiny is doing on the blog camp is journalism.
    so when a blogger reports an original story he is being a journalist, whether there is an ad on his post or not. but then my opinon hardly counts…if authorities want a blogger to reveal his source, I think they can make him do it as he is usually alone, without the backing of an organisation.

    and ofcourse bloggers should be sued if they write nonsense! you see journalists are trained to be careful what they write, they know their jobs are in jeopardy,their paper can be sued..but bloggers come from other professions and do not know. actually if you defame anyone you can be sued and should be sued. if anyone has the energy and will they will do it.
    what you say mahendra about a lot of blogger writing nonsense, yes, thats true…they may write lies too. but thats because they are ignorant of the law. they get saved because not everyone is bothered to take them to court. so much lies is written about celebrities but not everyone will take it to court.

  • Nita: I don’t blame you for being occupied with your own blog. Being desipunditted and wordpress-homepaged at the same time would lead anyone to the same! 🙂

    You say you agree with Harsha, and then you go on to cite various examples of blog post journalism! I am confused. I don’t think anyone is saying ALL bloggers are journalists, or even that ALL posts of a particular blogger are journalist posts. We’re saying some blog posts can be journalism. Period. You yourself cite several examples of how blog posts can be journalism. So I think you are not agreeing with Harsha and agreeing with me and Aikaterene.

    //if authorities want a blogger to reveal his source, I think they can make him do it as he is usually alone, without the backing of an organisation.//
    The point of my post is, if this bill is passed by Congress as it is currently framed, then the authorities will NOT be able to make a blogger reveal his source.

    I agree with you that bloggers should be liable and punishable if their lies are found worthy enough of being sued by individual celebrities or politicians or anyone famous for that matter.

  • btw, thats not the reason I have been been preoccupied with my blog..the desipundit thingie and wordpres thingie. its just htat i have been short of time and in that case commenting and reading blogs comes second to my own blog. i have a certain min time i spend on my blog everyday, if i have extra time i go to my comments, and then to surfer. there are days when i don’t at all. it depends on the time i have. i really do not think that its necessary either to read every blog post that i have on my surfer. i have many many blogs on my surfer, i think at least 30. sometimes i miss good posts,i regret it but then thats life.
    sorry to be off topic.
    and i don’t think i have said something very different from what Harsha said, i have just been specific.

  • Nita: Thank you for commenting. You don’t need to justify why you were busy with your blog, we all face the same issue.

    However, I don’t think you’re addressing what is being said in the comments. I and Aikaterine have countered what Harsha said, and that’s not being addressed at all. Are you still agreeing with Harsha? Do you think that no post by any blogger are journalistic?

  • i really do not understand what you are saying: Harsha said:
    //I believe blogging is different from journalism, because there is a fundamental difference between the two. While a journalist spends his time on the field and gathers information from various sources, blogger has the luxury of googling for information that he wants and making a post with that. Most of the times, the source of this information is the journalist.
    But bloggers in India have a long way to go before they can call themselves journalists.//
    I was addressing this comment where i do not see where he has written that no post by any blogger is journalistic.
    he is absolutely right when he speaks generally. bloggers are not journalists and he has explained why. i have elaborated on his point. sure, editorial like articles may be journalism too, i am not disagreeing with that. but how many are there? if one is talking generally, yes, i am with harsha. one cannot take exceptions and talk about blogging as journalism.
    when you take a source from a newspaper or tv journalist, this is not journalism! that is what the most bloggers do, and me too.
    that is my view I am afraid. blogging is definitely not journalism.

  • Hello all –

    I see the similarity between Nita and Hasha, and I think that Nita, by being specific, gave a definition that I could really get behind. And I do think that libel cases should be tried. Chances are they will eventually, I think it is more a matter of when. People do need to be help accountable.

  • I get it now. I would like to rephrase it as “blogging, in general, is different from journalism”, so that the exceptions are also accounted for. Then there are no disagreements.

    And we’re all agreeing that libel cases should be tried.

  • Wow, we all agree on something. Maybe there is hope for the world after all.

  • When this happens, I’m the most happy about blogging! I sincerely appreciate everyone’s inputs here.

  • It is interesting how this little discussion highlighted something that I have always believed, which is that many arguments are really about definitions. And not as much about a massive difference in viewpoint.

  • I fully agree. That’s why I always liked what the wise Voltaire said: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”

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  • I’m not in any way a journalist, although I try to be careful about not treading on anyone’s toes.

    It’s a tricky question, but I tend to agree with Nita. If a blogger practices original reporting, then he is acting as a journalist.

    Your blog, Mahendra, is very journalistic in tone, facts, and style. If you write something here, I probably will believe it.You have created a responsibility for yourself!

    I think a blogger might have to reveal his source to prove he isn’t telling lies. But if revealing the source would hurt someone, he’s on shaky moral ground.

    Great post. Get’s me thinking, as usual.

  • Cristine: Thank you for following the link to this older post and reading through the comments!

    Yes, I also agreed with Nita after understanding what she meant! 🙂

    And I think her blogging is much more journalistic than mine. This is the first time someone has said that my blog is journalistic in tone, facts, and style. I don’t know what to say, Cristine!

    I think I simply state my sources and espouse my own opinion on top of the facts that the sources have stated. I almost never have stated facts myself, except in posts marked ‘personal’. So I am not sure if I should accept your comment as a compliment or not – from an objective perspective.

    Let’s see how the Free Flow of Infomation Act comes about, now that the House of Representatives has passed it. There are severe restrictions on what is defined as a blogger journalist, but at least it is a start!

    Thanks a lot, again.

  • trisha

    read all the comments and the post as you had suggested I shd.teh question that I was contemplating on was, very persoanl in a way-if I want info abt smthng tht interests me,shd I go to blogs or reports? Knowing where the blogger got the info from and how wd be a great help in making my choice, as a seeker/reader.but again it depends, in some cases I wd rely on a blogger rather than on a reporter’s report 🙂 thanks.

  • Trisha: Thanks! The operative phrase in your comment is *in some cases*. Yes, that’s absolutely true!

  • druk

    Revealing internet bloggers who may be speaking uncomfortable truths is easier in India than other countries. So if any Indian bloggers think they will follow true journalism (rare in commercial media anyway) then God help them.

    India is one of the easiest countries to obtain internet bloggers identities. This may be done through Indian Police through the use of “evidence acts”.

    Whenever Indian Police makes a written request for bloggers identity, Orkut and Google will hand over the information. If there is any complaint the Police can act.

    After that it is upto Indian Police to do anything with the information obtained. The complaint can also be cancelled after the information is obtained.

    • Druk, thanks for this insight.

      Yes, privacy laws in India are nothing to speak of, and the best anonymity defense for Indian bloggers is to keep their online identity anonymous to start with.