Why can't a journalist reveal a source?

media : The legal situation is unclear

The USA is the home country of informant protection. The so-called "Reporter's Shield" law, the oldest in the world, has been in force in the state of Maryland since 1896. It says that a journalist does not have to reveal the source of any information. So the law holds a "shield" in front of the reporter. In order for the journalist to be able to fulfill his role as a “watchdog”, he must not be forced to reveal his sources in court. The idea of ​​protecting informants wandered through the world of free media. It is now even practiced by the International Criminal Court. The right to refuse to testify - as we call it - can now also be found in all German state press laws. And for years we have not heard of a case where journalists were threatened with sanctions if they kept their sources to themselves.

The USA was rightly regarded as the country of the free press, investigative research and transparent filing. But that reputation has suffered. The situation is indeed confusing. There is a "Shield Law" in a total of 31 states, where the so-called "Reporter's Privilege" is legally guaranteed. In other countries, the courts sometimes assume it exists. But there is no legal protection whatsoever at the federal level.

This is how the Supreme Court takes on the role of arbitrator. It has been over three decades since the court ruled on the subject in 1972. It ruled that the first amendment to the constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press did not guarantee automatic protection of informants. But it was a borderline case. The journalist witnessed criminal acts about which he was supposed to testify. In addition, the high court was divided, several judges supported the journalist's right to refuse. In other words, the legal situation is completely unclear. It is time for the court to clarify the situation. It is currently refusing to take on any of the pending cases.

But the right to refuse to testify is not just a legal matter. Often it will be a question of whether journalists and their informants - they are called whistleblowers - are protected as a matter of principle because their activities contribute to political self-purification. Or whether you want to make it impossible for the writing guild to get information about scandals. Above all, it is a matter of the atmosphere in which journalists do their work. In fact, informant protection has only been an issue for a few years. In July 2001, writer Vannessa Leggett was locked away for 168 days, longer than anyone before. She was writing a book about a murder in Houston, Texas, and was asked to identify her sources. Texas is old bush land.

It looks like President George W. Bush, after decades of reluctance, is asking his attorney general to make the work of critics difficult. The numerous violations of the judiciary in recent years have a lot to do with his government and its well-known secrecy. Millions of documents that were previously accessible were locked away.

Morals are getting rougher. The case of TV reporter Jim Taricani from Providence Rhode Island was also spectacular. He had shown a video sequence in which a corrupt local politician took bribes from an FBI agent. The pictures were considered evidence in court and should not have come into the hands of the journalist. Taricani remained silent and was sentenced to six months in prison, reduced to strict house arrest with electronic ankle cuffs for illness. His broadcaster paid a fine of $ 85,000.

The situation has deteriorated so much that there was a bipartisan initiative in Congress. A “Free Flow of Information” law is to be pushed. Important politicians like Senator Richard Luger, Republicans like Bush, support the project. He emphasized that, as is well known, a free press in another country is an important prerequisite for receiving American support. The critics say: "Mozambique offers better protection for whistleblowers than the US."

The author teaches journalism and political science at the University of Hamburg.

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