In a democracy where the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, government accountability to the media is critical to the survival of democracy. It is generally accepted that an independent media acts as a watchdog that can investigate and report wrongdoings by the government.
Although virtually every state has a law protecting reporters from disclosing sensitive information about their reporting to law enforcement, including the identity of confidential sources, Congress and federal courts have refused to recognize such a privilege. So is freedom of the press just a mirage?
Journalists often rely on confidential sources to write reports dealing with issues of legitimate public importance.
State shield laws are legal protections that give journalists the privilege of not being compelled to disclose confidential or unpublished information. Some states have enacted shield laws to protect the source of a journalist’s report. The Press Clause of the First Amendment ensures that everyone is protected in their right to disseminate information to the public. By favoring corporate-structured news media, Washington’s law favors institutional media, over citizen-journalists.
Still in some cases, reporters have either gone to jail or been sentenced with substantial fines. In order to make ourselves aware that journalists are not above the law as we think these days, a current scary incident needs to be mentioned here.
Priscilla Villarreal, according to a report that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, was just a freelance blogger. Villarreal is a journalist whose main job is to share newsworthy information with the public. She published it on her Facebook page after she confirmed with a Laredo police officer, some public information about a border agent who had committed suicide.
For several years, Villarreal has been embroiled in a legal dispute that raises fundamental questions about the law protecting press freedom and whether journalists in Texas are protected by the First Amendment. Any law that could be used to arrest a journalist for informing the public, could become a shocking precedent.
Villarreal’s arrest has drawn national attention for the constitutional concerns it raises. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that the First Amendment protects the right to publish information obtained from government sources, even when the source of that information violates confidentiality.
The journalist was arrested and charged under Texas state law: Locking up a journalist for asking a question or threatening to “get out” is a misdemeanor. It would be good if citizen journalists knew that if the media workers are almost not protected, if they try to bring more courage and bring many things to light. If the government seizes the reporter and puts him in jail, there will be no legal loopholes to release, or strong media organizations to collectively respond. Freedom of the Press, if that makes any sense, it means freedom to criticize and oppose, that is the absolute truth.
Be passionate about what you write and believe in your ability to convey timeless ideas. Governments that do not believe that freedom of speech belongs to every individual, governments that fear the writer’s words more than weapons, are suffocating and silencing journalists, and this will continue, while the media activists who have lost their responsiveness remain silent!