Confidential sources and unpublished notes will be covered under the measure.

Hawaii is taking a step to protect journalists by restoring the state’s shield law, via House Bill 1502.

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A shield law prevents government officials from legally requiring disclosure of a journalist’s confidential sources and unpublished notes. This state’s version was passed in the final days of the legislative session earlier this month.

Gov. Josh Green must still sign the measure for it to become law, or let it become law without his signature.

“I’ve been a professional journalist for more than 20 years, and trust between a reporter and a source takes a long time to build and is dependent on the source’s confidence that what they share will not harm them or their family,” said Annalisa Burgos, an anchor-reporter on Hawaii News Now and an adjunct lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“Sources who share controversial or protected information, especially whistleblowers, trust reporters to protect their identities so they don’t experience retaliation,” she said. “The shield law is a critical tool in a journalist’s job of rooting out corruption, holding people in power accountable, and reporting the truth from all perspectives. The shield law ensures a truly free press without fear of retaliation, essential for a robust democracy.”

The Legislature passed House Bill 1502, which provides protections for journalists. It now heads to Gov. Josh Green’s desk for consideration. (David Croxford/CivilBeat/2023)

Hawaii’s original shield law, signed into law in 2008, received a two-year extension in 2011 but failed to win re-approval in 2013 due to disagreements on who could claim the privilege.

“When it was first enacted into law, (the shield law) was widely hailed as one of the most progressive laws of its kind in the country protecting journalists and freedom of the press,” Gerald Kato, a retired journalism instructor at UH Manoa, wrote in public testimony.

From 2013 to 2023, Hawaii flipped from having a shield law that served as a national model to being one of only two states (Wyoming was the other) that did not. During the decade without a shield law, reporters in Hawaii were dragged into court on sketchy pretenses in an attempt to throttle journalistic freedom.

“Journalists, when doing their true duty, are in the profession of speaking truth to power. They need legal protections from retaliation by those in power and authority positions,” a former journalist, Will Caron, wrote in public testimony.

Various shield law bills in recent years have caused debate, like what happened in Hawaii, about who is defined as a journalist.

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This bill defines journalists as: “Presently or previously employed by or otherwise professionally associated with any newspaper or magazine, news agency, press association, wire service, or radio or television transmission station or network, or digital news website.”

It said they “shall not be required by a legislative, executive, or judicial officer or body, or any other authority having the power to compel testimony or the production of evidence, to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise.”

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