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:


    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.