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Editorial: Press’ freedom worth protecting

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A free and responsible press is one of the guarantors of open government, but even in the United States that is not always a certainty.

In May, there were revelations that the Justice Department had secretly seized records of phone lines used by Associated Press reporters. The seizure was part of an investigation into government leaks.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a free press, but this incident is an example of the kind of pressure that can be brought on reporters. Another form of pressure is the threat of imprisonment if reporters do not reveal the names of sources.

But without those sources, government misconduct might go unexposed. In addition, if the sources are fearful that their names will be revealed and they might lose their jobs, then their willingness to cooperate could be significantly reduced.

To protect reporters and ultimately the public’s right to know, the Senate is considering the Free Flow of Information Act, which would provide journalists with certain rights and abilities to seek sources and report appropriate information without fear of intimidation or imprisonment. The bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and now is before the full chamber.

We urge its approval.

As a senator, Hoosier Dick Lugar introduced a similar measure. At the time, he said: “This legislation confirms America’s constitutional commitment to press freedom and advances our foreign policy initiatives to promote and protect democracy. We must lead by example and the role of the media as a conduit between government and the citizens it serves cannot be devalued.”

That sentiment remains just as true today.

Dozens of states already recognize the need for a reporter shield and have enacted proposals to that end. The Senate proposal would extend that protection to the federal level.

The bill would set standards that must be met before a federal prosecutor, agency or other governmental unit can issue a subpoena to a member of the news media in a federal criminal or civil case. It also would set tests that must be met before a journalist can be forced to turn over information.

It’s not one-sided, though. There are instances in which information must be released. These include information critical to prevent death or injury, in cases that relate to disclosing trade secrets or in cases involving imminent and actual harm to national security.

By creating a framework for disclosure, the legislation would promote transparency of government, allow the courts to operate effectively and protect whistle-blowers who identify government or corporate wrongdoing.

As a congressman, Gov. Mike Pence said of a proposed shield law: “(A) confidential source brought to light abuses at the highest levels of government in the long national nightmare of Watergate. History records that W. Mark Felt never would have come forward without the assurance made to him of confidentiality.

“But 30 years later the press cannot make that assurance to sources, and we face the real danger that there may never be another Deep Throat.”

The bill before the Senate should not be viewed as a privilege for reporters but as a protection of every American’s right to keep themselves informed on vital issues related to governance.

This is an important distinction to make. The news media serve as the public’s eyes and voice in monitoring government and in assuring openness and access. Without protection, the media could be stifled, robbing the public of the opportunity and the knowledge of what government is doing.

Good government need not fear scrutiny. But without public vigilance, bad government can prosper.

This bill will help ensure the public’s right to keep on eye on operations.

We urge both the Senate and House to approve the bill and for President Barack Obama to sign it. Do it for the people’s right to know.

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