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White House backs new press protection amid storm

The White House backed legislation to strengthen journalists' rights to protect sources on Wednesday, amid a growing firestorm over the government's seizure of reporters' phone logs.

world Updated: May 16, 2013 11:10 IST

The White House backed legislation to strengthen journalists' rights to protect sources on Wednesday, amid a growing firestorm over the government's seizure of reporters' phone logs.

President Barack Obama contacted lawmakers to ask that a so-called media shield bill be brought forward, his spokesman said, as criticism grew over the secret collection of the telephone records of the Associated Press.

"The president has long supported media shield legislation in the Senate, during the 2008 campaign, and as president," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding that Obama had spoken directly to Senator Charles Schumer.

Schumer, meanwhile, confirmed that he would reintroduce the measure, which would require prosecutors to convince a judge that information being sought would "prevent or mitigate an act of terrorism or harm to national security."

The senior lawmaker said the law "would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information."

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the move to revive the shield law, which failed in prior legislative efforts.

"The White House deserves credit, they should be commended for taking a proactive approach, but they should ensure that any bill that actually goes to the president's desk would effectively prevent what happened here," ACLU counsel Gabe Rottman said.

After the AP revealed the subpoenas on Monday, commentators and media organizations accused Obama's administration of trampling on press freedoms in its pursuit of government leaks and whistleblowers.

More than 50 media organizations signed a letter of protest of the US government seizure.

In a joint letter, the coalition said the seizure "calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the (constitutional) First Amendment rights of the news media and the public's interest,"

The letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that in the 30 years since the Justice Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice for media phone records, "none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed."

Attorney General Eric Holder defended the action Tuesday, saying it was part of a probe into a security breach which had put "the American people at risk."

"That's not hyperbole," he insisted, dubbing the leak "very, very serious."

Criticism from news organizations increased on Wednesday.

The Washington Post said in an editorial that "whatever national security enhancement this was intended to achieve seems likely to be outweighed by the damage to press freedom and governmental transparency."

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said in a column: "This was supposed to be the administration of unprecedented transparency

"Instead, it's turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and of unprecedented attacks on a free press."

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a media education group, said that the government's ability to seize the logs despite free press protections "reminds me of the fact that North Korea's government has a statute on the books promising a free press.... the Justice Department's guidelines, like North Korea's free-press law, proved worthless as soon as they proved untidy."

Separately, The New Yorker magazine unveiled a new online system for anonymous whistleblower tips, based on technology developed by the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz and a former hacker.

Senior editor Amy Davidson said that under the "Strongbox" system "even we won't be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won't be able to tell them."

The system aims to encourage the anonymous submission of newsworthy information, in the manner of WikiLeaks and other Internet sites. The Wall Street Journal set up its own tip system in May 2011 called SafeHouse.

First Published: May 16, 2013 11:09 IST