Some government secrets should remain under wraps. Many others are kept out of view for poor reasons, including extreme caution and a lack of recognition that withholding information from the public should be extraordinary.
One crucial job of a journalist is to look where she is not supposed to and disseminate information that people should see. Revelations about government misconduct, incompetence and undisclosed programs worthy of public debate are the result.
When the Obama administration wages an aggressive campaign against leaks or, as in previous administrations, journalists are threatened with jail because they refuse to give up their sources, people think twice about talking, and reporters are deterred from their mission.
It’s past time for Congress to pass a law protecting journalists from being forced to disclose information about the sources, methods and content of their reporting.
On Sept. 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved such a bill.
The Free Flow of Information Act would shield anyone associated with a newsgathering operation — including freelancers and bloggers — intending to convey important information to the public. In criminal cases, judges would have to balance the government’s interest in getting information from journalists against the public’s interest in maintaining a free press capable of obtaining and disseminating information.
Critics say the bill would too narrowly define who is a journalist. Yet it would also empower judges to extend protections to anyone if they determine that doing so would be “in the interest of justice and necessary to protect lawful and legitimate newsgathering activities.”
Critics also say that the bill is far too weak. It wouldn’t, for example, have prevented the Justice Department from seizing Associated Press phone records without the news agency’s knowledge, as Justice did last year. But it would have forced investigators to consult a judge before taking those records.