FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

WikiLeaks and Defining Journalism

hey are at it again, those eager policy makers keen to define what journalism actually is. To be a journalist, or not to be one, may well be the difference between punishment or protection under the latest discussions by members of the U.S. Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee was busy last week coming to a few conclusions on the subject. Some of these remain troubling.

There was a certain urgency in the air after it was revealed that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed some two months’ worth of telephone records spanning 21 phone lines involving editors and reporters of The Associated Press. A search warrant was also secretly used to obtain emails of a Fox News journalist (The Times and Democrat, Sep 15).

Two pertinent issues are at stake here. One is what a journalist, and requisite journalism, actually is. Such definitions have proven problematic, traditionally defined in such a way that excludes publishers such as WikiLeaks. That, law makers seem to claim, would be one immunity too far. Once the definition of journalist is satisfied, the argument then centres on how far the immunity extends to protect a journalist from disclosing sources.

The Schumer-Graham media shield bill states that those covered would be persons with the “primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information.”

The Free Flow of Information Act 2013, as the new shield bill has formally been called, would provide shield protection for journalists from having to reveal sources against a subpoena. It is a resurrection, in part, of the Free Flow of Information bill of 2009, an instrument that found itself stranded in Congressional waters soon after WikiLeaks unleashed Cablegate.

Any definition suggests exclusions. Furthermore, the glaring feature of the latest debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee is the assumption that Congress should even define what journalism is. So, while we have Senator Charles Schumer’s diligent efforts to increase the scope of the definition to include bloggers (how revolutionary), thorny issues remain.

For Schumer, “You have to do two things. You first have to realise that the world has changed, and not everything occurs in print from people who work seven days a week in journalism.” Not that he is about to throw the baby out with its accompanying conservative bathwater. “But on the other hand, you can’t just say anybody who writes one single thing gets the same kind of protection.”

California Senator Diane Feinstein, never a friend of the journalistic creed, preferred to define “real reporters” as those earning a salary, independent contractors or “agent of an entity that disseminates news or information”. In hearings, Feinstein is on record as suggesting that a 17-year-old high school dropout with a blog could hardly qualify for protection. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has also been of a similar view, while Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) entertained the absurd in his claim that journalists revealing classified information could not be covered.

Whether information is privileged also depends on the medium disclosing the information, namely, that it be a “newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, news website, mobile application or other news or information service (whether distributed digitally or otherwise); news program, magazine or other periodical, whether in print, electronic or other format; or through television or radio broadcast; or motion picture for public showing.” Again, the tendrils of conservatism are such that a publishing agency like WikiLeaks might fall outside its ambit, unless it is classed as a “news website”.

The compromise between the Durbin-Feinstein grouping and Schumer, passed on Thursday by 13-5 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, seems like unnecessary babble in the context of restriction. An individual who has had an employer relationship for one of the past 20 years or three continuous months in the five years would be protected (Huffington Post, Sep 12). As the editorial of The Times and Democrat claims, “It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years.”

Judicial discretion is, however, granted in cases where an individual might not, on face value, fall within that protection.

As with anything that stems from state representatives, national security exceptions apply. Confidential information in a journalist’s possession that might cause “significant and articulable harm to national security” would still have to surrender such material. Given how incalculably vague national security interests are, let alone “articulable”, we are still in that old muddle of whether a true flow of information will be possible. It all falls to the reasonableness of judicial opinion and the sanity of the state, both questionable propositions.

What now happens to the bill as it veers to the Senate for full consideration remains an open question. While there can be little doubt that aspects of government will be opened by the measure – the need for court approval to seek journalists’ records being the main feature there – the compromise remains weak for focusing on the status of the journalist rather than the actions of journalism. Congress is incapable of letting that one go. Besides, the Senators will continue to be concerned by that organisation that continues to send tremors through the national security establishment.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently running with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party in Victoria. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

February 20, 2019
Anthony DiMaggio
Withdrawal Pains and Syrian Civil War: An Analysis of U.S. Media Discourse
Charles Pierson
When Saudi Arabia Gets the Bomb
Doug Johnson Hatlem
“Electability” is Real (Unless Married with the Junk Science of Ideological Spectrum Analysis)
Kenneth Surin
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Another Boondoggle in Virginia
John Feffer
The Psychology of the Wall
Dean Baker
Modern Monetary Theory and Taxing the Rich
Russell Mokhiber
Citizens Arrested Calling Out Manchin on Rockwool
George Ochenski
Unconstitutional Power Grabs
Michael T. Klare
War With China? It’s Already Under Way
Thomas Knapp
The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall, It’s About the Separation of Powers
Manuel García, Jr.
Two Worlds
Daniel Warner
The Martin Ennals and Victorian Prize Winners Contrast with Australia’s Policies against Human Dignity
Norman Solomon
What the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign Means for Progressives
Dan Corjescu
2020 Vision: A Strategy of Courage
Matthew Johnson
Why Protest Trump When We Can Impeach Him?
William A. Cohn
Something New and Something Old: a Story Still Being Told
Bill Martin
The Fourth Hypothesis: the Present Juncture of the Trump Clarification and the Watershed Moment on the Washington Mall
February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail