The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office is again opposing a bill that would put in place a shield law to protect members of the news media from having to disclose their sources or unpublished information in most cases.

Hawaii had a media shield law until 2013 but it was allowed to sunset. It failed to win re-approval in the 2013 legislative session, partly in the face of opposition from the AG as well as former Sen. Clayton Hee, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This year, Hee is out of office but the AG still has the same concerns.

Photojournalists from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse file photographs immediately after making images while on the press pool bus. 3 jan 2015

Members of the news media aboard the press van during President Barack Obama’s Hawaiian vacation in January.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We are concerned that the language in the bill is too broad,” Deputy Attorney General Deirdre Marie-Iha told a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

House Bill 295, sponsored by Rep. Gregg Takayama, a former journalist himself, would protect journalists from being forced to disclose their sources to any law enforcement or any state-level official. The shield law would not apply if the journalist was about to commit a crime, or if there is substantial evidence that the information is defamatory.

The law could also apply to non-traditional journalists — like bloggers or documentary filmmakers — if they can prove that their information is of “substantial public interest.”

Marie-Iha said that even people who post on Facebook regularly could be covered under the law.

But Takayama pointed out that a shield law that existed in Hawaii for years had a similar provision. It was considered one of the best in the country, he said.

Still, media organizations and others who support a shield law say they can’t back HB 295 if it’s changed to satisfy the Attorney General. They say no law at all would be better.

“If there’s any thought about amending that law, than it’s better to have no law at all,” Gerald Kato, a journalism professor at the University of Hawaii said. “I think that the division between so called bloggers and journalists is a false division.”

Although there haven’t been any cases where journalists have gone to jail because of a lack of a shield law in the last two years, supporters said that it’s only a matter of time before such a situation arises.

Prosecutors, police and other officials would have to prove that the journalist’s information is “critical to prevent serious harm to life or public safety,” or have the consent of the source, in order to gain access to a reporter’s information.

In 2013, lawmakers couldn’t agree on the final draft of a new shield law bill for a numbers of reasons, including whether or not they wanted to give non-traditional journalists protection.

Currently, 49 states and the District of Columbia have some form of a shield law. Supporters say the laws help journalists to do their job without fearing a backlash from public officials.

The House Judiciary Committee deferred the bill until another hearing next week.

Former Sen. Clayton Hee speaks about the shield law and democracy in this clip from the 2013 session:


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