Update: After Monday's House Judiciary Committee hearing, Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), members of the committee, introduced a federal shield law. According to the congressmen, "The legislation would establish a federal statutory privilege that would protect journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources and ensure that they can do their jobs without fear of imprisonment or intimidation." See more here.
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force is expressing extreme concern about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ refusal – again – to say his Department of Justice will not target journalists who protect the identities of their confidential sources.
During his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Monday, General Sessions was asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland):
“As attorney general, will you commit not to prosecute investigative journalists for maintaining the confidentiality of their professional sources?”
Sessions’ answer was less than comforting, to say the least:
“I will commit to respecting the role of the press and conducting my office in a way that respects that and the rules within the Department of Justice. We have not had a conflict in my term in office yet with the press, but there’s some things that the press seems to think they have an absolute right to – they do not have an absolute right to.”
Among the problematic words in Sessions’ response were “rules within the Department of Justice.” In early August, the attorney general announced he had ordered a review of Obama-era rules that strongly discouraged federal agents from going after reporters while searching for people who had leaked classified information. He declined to state at that time that any new rules would not target journalists.
Two days later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” also deflected direct questions from host Chris Wallace seeking assurances that journalists would not be persecuted in an attempt to discover the identity of confidential sources.
The attorney general subsequently declined to give such a pledge during at least one appearance before a Senate committee prior to Monday’s House Judiciary Committee testimony.
More disturbing yet, in February, President Trump reportedly told then-FBI Director James Comey that he should consider throwing reporters in jail for reporting classified information.
“President Trump and many members of his administration have expressed open disdain for reporters who commit flagrant acts of responsible journalism that they either don’t like, or find inconvenient for their agenda,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director. “Given the unrelenting nature and volume of these anti-news media attacks, it’s hard not to be worried that the Sessions Justice Department will, at some point, use the powers of federal law enforcement to persecute journalists,” he added.
The Obama-era rules now under review require the government to seek the identities of government whistleblowers from reporters only as a last resort, and then only with the approval of officials at the highest levels of the Department of Justice. Those rules were enacted by then-Attorney General Eric Holder after RTDNA and several other press freedom advocates expressed alarm when journalists were targeted as part of leak investigations.
“Courts have found that under the First Amendment it is not illegal for reporters to receive or publish leaked information. However, journalists should exercise extreme care when dealing with whistleblowers, when weighing the implications of publishing the information they provide, and with making plans to protect the identities of such sources,” said Shelley.
The Voice of the First Amendment Task force recommends journalists carefully review a new report from the Government Accountability Project, “Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists,” which covers all of the issues involved.
The task force also urges journalists not to be intimidated by Mr. Trump’s, Sessions’, or Rosenstein’s veiled and not-so-veiled threats to press freedom.
RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to bridge the divide between responsible journalists and those who don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.