US to amend law to curb media

Washington: Alarmed with the expose of Afghanistan war secrets by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, US lawmakers are working on a legislation to amend a law which shields journalists from revealing confidential sources.

Senators of the ruling Democratic Party are backpedalling from WikiLeaks, the website that recently disclosed more than 75,000 classified documents related to the Afghanistan war, The New York Times reported.

Senators Charles E. Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, of New York and California, are drafting an amendment to make clear that the bill’s protections extend only to traditional news-gathering activities and not to websites that serve as a conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents.

The so-called “media shield” bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor, the Times said.

“WikiLeaks should not be spared in any way from the fullest prosecution possible under the law,” Schumer said in a statement. “Our bill already includes safeguards when a leak impacts national security, and it would never grant protection to a website like this one, but we will take this extra step to remove even a scintilla of doubt.”

Under the new bill, the information seeker would have to exhaust all other means of obtaining the names before seeking a journalist’s testimony in court, though matters involving threats to national security would be exempted from some protections.

However, it is not clear whether WikiLeaks – a confederation of open-government advocates who solicit secret documents for publication – could be subject to a federal subpoena.

According to WikiLeaks, the website uses a technology which makes it impossible to trace the source of documents that are submitted to it. So even if the organisation were compelled to disclose a source, it is not clear that it would be able to do so.

Still, in case WikiLeaks or a similar organisation sought to invoke a shield law, proponents of the legislation are trying to create legislative history that would show judges that Congress did not intend for the law to cover such organisations, the daily said.

Paul J. Boyle, senior vice president for public policy at the Newspaper Association of America – which supports the bill – said Senate aides had asked his group to consult on the proposed changes.

The idea, aides said, would be to add language bolstering, a section defining who would be covered by the law as a journalist — an area that can be tricky in an era of blogging and proliferation of online-only news media outlets.

Boyle argued that the WikiLeaks case could, paradoxically, help supporters of the bill.

The increasing use of subpoenas to pressure reporters to identify sources created incentive for would-be leakers to send material to a group like WikiLeaks rather than to a traditional news organisation subject to American law and having editorial controls and experience in news judgment, he said.

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