Saturday, March 26, 2011

Just sayin' : It’s called a privilege for reporters, but the ones it really protects are the citizens, the whistleblowers

What if Water- gate had never hap- pened?

What if whistle- blowers like Erin Brockovich were afraid to expose corporate and government wrongdoing that endanger people’s lives? What would our nation look like if everyday citizens were intimidated into keeping crucial information from the press?

What if the police, or trial lawyers seeking millions of dollars in damages, didn’t have to do their own legwork, bringing that burden of proof to a jury in the tried-and-true tradition of a judicial system guaranteeing civil rights? What if they could, instead, just scribble out a subpoena and grab a reporter’s notes about things that were told in trust and confidence?

That, my friends, is life without a shield law, also known as reporter’s privilege. It’s called a privilege for reporters, but the ones it really protects are the citizens, the whistleblowers.

Hawaii has such a shield law. Or it does, at least, until June 30. That’s the date the current law runs out, unless lawmakers make it permanent.

This limited news media privilege against the compelled disclosure of sources and unpublished information has successfully protected a journalist and a documentary film producer in Hawaii since it was enacted two years ago. More importantly, it has stood as a model for other states and a beacon to a free press, preventing untold subpoenas and threats to the exercise of journalistic endeavors.

It is difficult to quantify the negative, so it is not known how many journalists were not compelled to turn over their notes and sources because of the shield law. In short, however, there has been no documented harm to the state because of the shield law, and at least two cases where the law served its purpose in furthering a free press.

The state House sees the value in such a law. Bills by both the House Majority and the House Minority came forth this session to make the temporary law permanent. Talk about bipartisan support.

The House unanimously passed the bill March 3 and sent it along to the Senate. There it sits, with an April 8 deadline for a hearing, or it dies a quiet death. But not to act, is itself, an action, is it not?

There’s still time to get HB 1376 to a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Not a lot of time, granted. But time. Let’s at least get this important bill heard.

You can do your part by contacting Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee.

Thirty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia, have substantial protections in place, according to the The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Should Hawaii -- the Aloha State, the state that embraces privacy and individual liberties even more than most – be the state that fails to protect that brave individual who comes forward to voice concerns about wrongdoing and corruption?  I hope not.

 Just sayin’.

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