Survey Finds Increased US Willingness to Forgo Press Freedoms for National Security

Forty-four percent of Americans favor a mandate that journalists divulge their sources in order to make the United States safer, according to a recent survey. A slight majority of 51 percent opposed the policy, but a press freedom watchdog remains critical of the direction of media independence.

The study by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, titled “State of the First Amendment: 2013,” said that this number had jumped from 37 percent in 2008. That’s when the researchers first asked participants whether members of the press should be obliged to reveal confidential news sources as a matter of safety.

The Newseum Institute study’s primary focus, including a poll of 1,006 US Americans, centered on attitudes regarding the US Constitution’s First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Among their findings was that close to one third (34 percent) of those polled believed that the First Amendment went “too far in the rights it guarantees.” However, when asked to name the five specific freedoms addressed in the amendment, 36 percent failed to name a single one of them.

Survey ResultsThe annual survey, conducted since 1997, found that 47 percent named freedom of speech as the most important freedom, and that 80 percent agreed on the importance in a democracy of a news media that acts as an independent “watchdog” over government.

In terms of law and the professional context, media freedoms have gone “one step forward, two steps back” said Reporters Without Borders. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) revisions of press guidelines have narrowed exceptions and thus has moved forward, since they restrict the use of subpoenas and search warrants for journalists. However, the international press freedom organization added, “the lack of protection for journalistic sources remains unaddressed at the federal level.”

Reporters Without Borders maintains, “Leaks are the lifeblood of investigative journalism.” Recent crackdowns on whistleblowers underline the “need for a comprehensive, federal shield law” to protect against being forced to disclose confidential sources — vital elements of journalism that without protection “are unlikely to come forward in the future.”

Both the Senate and the Congress have proposed various versions of a shield law. Currently the White House has asked Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) to reintroduce a 2013 version of the Free Flow of Information Act, which holds broader exemptions for disclosing sources and confidential information than its House counterpart, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“It is important that any shield law passed actually addresses the issues that are currently plaguing journalists,” and the “Senate version would not have protected the Associated Press from the government’s investigation of their phone records, nor would it have protected Fox News’ James Rosen,” emphasized the Paris-based NGO.

Reporters Without Borders noted that the instances with the Associated Press and Rosen — who was named as a co-conspirator in the government’s case against State Department whistleblower Stephen Jin-Woo Kim — sum into a larger and concerning trend. Jeffrey Sterling is another example. The former CIA employee is the seventh former government employee to face charges under the Espionage Act since President Barack Obama took office, they said.

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