Hawaii’s law protecting journalists from being forced to reveal their sources and notes hasn’t been tested much in court, but that may be a sign it’s working.

Reporters have only defended themselves with the 4-year-old shield law in a handful of cases. That’s because for the most part, agencies are finding other ways of obtaining information for their cases, media experts said.

“It’s been used more as a deterrent than anything,” said Jeff Portnoy, a prominent First Amendment attorney in Honolulu. “But it’s only a matter of time until some really important case comes down and the shield law will be front and center.”

Portnoy said the law has been used a handful of times by media — a videographer from the Big Island, an anonymous blogger on Maui and an online news reporter on Oahu. But daily newspapers and TV outlets haven’t needed to bring it into play yet.

Hawaii’s shield law was enacted in 2008, but it is set to expire June 30 if lawmakers don’t remove the sunset provision. Media outlets and First Amendment advocates are already gearing up for the next legislative session, which starts in January. Attorney General David Louie has indicated he would like to push through substantial changes to the law, including requiring reporters to turn over unpublished material and defining who should be protected.

Stirling Morita, who heads the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hawaii chapter, said the shield law has effectively deterred various government agencies from asking journalists for their sources and notes.

“The law seems to have worked fine,” he said. “The world hasn’t come to an end in terms of the attorneys and everybody else contending it could damage cases for defendants and that kind of thing.”

Morita said the number of subpoenas has dropped significantly since 2008, which is a good thing. He said this decline has helped journalists avoid wasting time responding to requests for information that may only be tangential in a case.

The agencies and attorneys are finding the information — whether it’s a statement from someone who witnessed a murder, or photos from the scene of a crime — through other means, Portnoy said.

Documentary filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez, for instance, found protection under the shield law when the plaintiff’s attorney tried to subpoena him in a case dealing with a building site where Native Hawaiian burials were found. Kauai Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe ruled in his favor in September 2009.

“If I take any three-year period in the last 20 years and compare it to the last three, there have been dramatically less efforts to obtain photos and outtakes of videos, for instance,” he said, adding that this is his historical perspective, not scientific.

The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office was unable to track down any subpoenas issued to journalists, spokesman Dave Koga said. But just asking around the office, he said no one could remember any journalist being served except for a case in the late 1980s.

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