Sunday, March 12, 2006

Need For Journalists' Shield Law Argued

March 11, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief, The Hartford Courant

Legislators grappled Friday with a proposed shield law for Connecticut journalists, saying they are concerned about who would deserve legal protection in a world of Internet bloggers and talk-radio jockeys that has emerged beyond the traditional definition of news media.

Supporters said Connecticut needs to become the 32nd state with a special law to prevent reporters from being forced to reveal their confidential sources in either criminal or civil cases. They believe that the legislature must strengthen the freedom of the press at a time when there is no federal shield law.

"If reporters can be compelled by courts to reveal sources, there will be a chilling effect on whistle-blowing," said Rep. James Spallone, an Essex Democrat who sponsored the bill.

"This is a good government bill."

The shield law, Spallone said, should be viewed as a part of an overall package of ethics reforms after the scandals that led to the guilty plea of former Gov. John G. Rowland, who was released from prison last month and is now serving home confinement at his West Hartford ranch house.

During a hearing Friday by the legislature's judiciary committee, lawmakers raised questions about who would be covered and how the law would work. When told by a witness that some Web bloggers would be covered by the bill, Sen. John Kissel (an email I sent to Kissel) responded, "That's a little scary to me. It's a real Wild West out there. ... I think that opens up a whole can of worms."

Rhode Island news reporter Jim Taricani, who was sentenced to house arrest after refusing to reveal the source of a videotape in the criminal prosecution of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, said he could not have broadcast stories on organized crime and public corruption without granting confidentiality to his sources.

"Remember Watergate. Remember Enron," Taricani told the committee.

"Remember the secret wiretapping of American citizens. All these stories were brought to light because of confidential sources."

But Chris Powell, the managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, said the law is unnecessary because no one, including reporters, should have any more rights than anyone else in a democracy.

"Freedom of the press belongs to everyone," said Powell, adding that he was speaking for himself.

"The responsibilities of citizenship belong to everyone as well. This legislation would betray that equality by setting up a privileged class."

The Hartford Courant supports the bill, and an attorney read a statement to the committee on behalf of Publisher Jack Davis.

"Confidential sources often were important in enabling The Courant to make its extensive disclosures about corruption in state government over the past two years," Davis said in the statement.

"Compelling reporters to testify about these sources, or about their newsgathering activities generally, threatens the free flow of information, compromises every journalist's ability to report on the news, and undermines reporters' independence and credibility."

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