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Spending Package Includes Media Support but Drops Shield Law

FILE - The east face of the United States Capitol Building is seen in this general view. March 11, 2019, in Washington D.C.
FILE - The east face of the United States Capitol Building is seen in this general view. March 11, 2019, in Washington D.C.

From support for journalists at risk to sanctions against hostile countries seeking to silence critics, the $1.7 trillion U.S. spending bill for 2023 includes several measures to champion media at home and abroad.

But what’s even more notable about the omnibus, some media analysts said, is what didn't make the cut: a landmark federal shield bill known as the PRESS Act.

Shield laws protect journalists from being forced by the government to disclose information like the identities of sources. Nearly every U.S. state and the District of Columbia has either a shield law or court recognition of qualified privilege for sources, but no federal law is in place.

“Sources won’t come forward if they’re worried about getting a knock on the door from law enforcement for doing so,” Gabe Rottman, the technology and press freedom project director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), told VOA. “If you can’t ensure a source’s confidentiality, then you lose crucial stories in the public interest.”

“That’s the whole point behind the federal shield bill,” he said.

Passed unanimously by the House and with bipartisan support, many expected the act to be included in the final bill. But Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas objected, raising concerns, including that the act could “open a floodgate of leaks damaging to law enforcement” and national security.

“That was really enough to kill it,” said Clayton Weimers, executive director of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) U.S. office. “It’s really disappointing — not just to RSF but to all the organizations who are working hard to pass this bill — that it was able to be stopped in its tracks by the objection of a single senator.”

VOA emailed Cotton’s office for comment but as of the time of publication had not received a response.

The December omnibus is the closest a federal shield bill has ever been to getting passed, said Weimers and Rottman. Both are setting their sights on getting the PRESS Act passed in the next session of Congress.

Despite that setback, media advocates welcomed several other provisions put forward, including support for media in Afghanistan and other areas, and a directive outlined in an earlier House bill for the Foreign Service Institute to ensure that U.S. diplomats receive training on press freedom issues.

“As valuable as the funding may prove to be, the greater value may be the signal Congress is sending by recognizing the vital role of a free press in democracy,” said a January statement from the National Press Club. “This concept has received little public recognition from government officials in recent years.”

Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, told VOA he wants this curriculum to focus on the threat of state-sponsored kidnappings of journalists, among other issues.

Measures to sanction people acting on behalf of Tehran to harass and surveil Iranians abroad, including journalists and human rights activists, are also included in the bill.

The Masih Alinejad Harassment and Unlawful Targeting Act is named after Iranian-American journalist and Iran critic Masih Alinejad. The VOA Persian host was the target of a 2021 kidnapping plot in New York orchestrated by Tehran to bring her to Iran.

Iran’s attempt to kidnap Alinejad “demonstrated the extremes the Iranian government is willing to pursue to silence outspoken individuals,” Maryland’s Senator Ben Cardin said in a statement to VOA. Cardin co-sponsored the bill with Pennsylvania’s Senator Pat Toomey.

“This act puts into place the appropriate consequences for all that attempt to limit the ability of Iranian citizens to exercise free speech, and demonstrates the United States’ commitment to supporting free speech for the people of Iran,” Cardin added.

Alinejad told VOA she is honored that the law was named after her.

"It is ironic that lawmakers in [the] Islamic Republic expelled me from the press lobby covering the Iranian parliament for exposing corruption and the lawmakers in my adopted country honored me and offered me protection," she said via messaging app.

"This is the first step and I'm sure other measures will be in place to protect not just me but other dissidents and dual national citizens. The Islamic Republic cannot get away with threatening to kidnap and murder U.S. citizens on our shores."

The Manhattan U.S. attorney in July 2021 announced charges against individuals it identified as an Iranian intelligence officer and members of an intelligence network, accused of plotting to kidnap the VOA host.

At the time, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh dismissed the U.S. allegations.

The act directs the State Department to report annually on human rights in Iran and Tehran’s efforts to harass dissidents outside the country.

“The U.S. must exercise leadership against authoritarian regimes attempting to silence dissidents beyond their borders. This new law sends a clear message not only to the Iranian regime, but to all authoritarian regimes that if you engage in transnational repression and target dissidents on U.S. soil, there will be dire consequences,” Cardin said.

In addition to funding for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees broadcasters including VOA, the omnibus lays out funds to “support and protect” journalists and activists who have been attacked or threatened over their work.

“We must speak out forcefully against those who imprison or threaten journalists and hold accountable those who undermine their safety,” Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen told VOA in a statement.

Funds are also allocated to support efforts to combat disinformation.

This funding demonstrates a growing recognition of the threat that disinformation from authoritarian governments can pose, according to RSF’s Weimers.

“You have open societies like ours and closed societies like say China, and our information space is easily penetrated by Chinese propaganda and disinformation,” he said. “More and more we’re seeing this idea of pushing back against China trying to export its information model to the world.”

But Report for America’s interim Vice President of Communications Sam Kille thinks the U.S. should also be doing more at home.

Kille had hoped to see elements of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act incorporated in the spending bill.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act is a bipartisan bill that would help provide tax credits to newsrooms that hire local journalists, small businesses that advertise in local media, and to consumers, according to Kille.

“When you consider that our country has lost nearly a quarter of its newsrooms in recent years, leaving 70 million Americans without a trusted, local source of information, the time for federal policy is now,” Kille said via email. “Otherwise, we risk seeing news deserts spread which ultimately will lead to more misinformation and greater polarization.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include comment from VOA Persian host Masih Alinejad.