Sali hurt public’s right to know

By Kevin Richert

From the Idaho Statesman

Today we catch up, belatedly, on another unusual “no” vote from 1st District Rep. Bill Sali. Sali was among just 21 House members to vote no on HR 2102, a federal “shield law” governing journalists’ ability to protect the anonymity of unnamed sources.

The bill passed the House on Oct. 16; to his credit, 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson voted yes. I can hear the Sali defenders now. “Oh, now Sali’s done it: he has voted against a media bill, ticking off all those reporters and pundits who have never liked him in the first place.”

First off, I’ll defend a Sali no vote when he has a good explanation for it (as I did recently, when I said I could understand his no vote on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion bill and the cigarette tax increase that went with it). And second, an effective shield law isn’t just a media bill. In protecting journalists’ ability to report on sensitive stories, shield law honors the public’s right to know.

Here’s how spokesman Wayne Hoffman explains Sali’s vote: “The congressman was concerned that the bill would encourage the leaking of classified material. At the same time, there’s a concern that the bill would set so high a bar as to discourage investigations and prosecutions of such leaks.”

I can appreciate Sali’s concerns, but I don’t just disagree with his interpretation of HR 2012. This is no get-out-of-jail (or stay-out-of-jail) card for journalists. Reporters could be forced to reveal their sources for reasons of national security; if disclosure is “necessary to prevent imminent death or significant bodily harm;” and if disclosure is in the public interest, “taking into account both the public interest in compelling disclosure and the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information.”

This is a balancing act, as HR 2102 seems to recognize. This balance is important even during – and especially during – a nebulous and ongoing war on terror.

Kevin Richert: 377-6437

From the Idaho Statesman

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