Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Are bloggers and journalists obligated to cooperate with the authorities?

This article discusses an American blogger who was jailed for refusing to turn over to the authorities video footage he shot of G-8 protests. There's actually two different questions raised by the article that I find interesting: (1) whether bloggers are obligated to cooperate with the authorities, and (2) whether journalists are obligated to cooperate with the authorities. I take it as given that the ordinary citizen is so obligated, and am looking for reasons to distinguish bloggers and/or journalists from the rabble, much as physicians and lawyers already have. Also, I'm not talking about legal obligation.

The first is easy. Yes, they are. Blogging doesn't give you a special status, either one recognized by law or by society in general. Moreover, blogging is little more than a technologically-sophisticated version of running your mouth in a bar. On occasion, interesting topics can develop and some really good discussions can be had. More often, though, bloggers are simply venting. I'm not knocking venting, but an activity which largely consists of venting doesn't on the face of it deserve any special protection.

The second is a little less easy. At least in theory, journalists are supposed to act as a check on government power. Problematically, they lack legal status for doing so -- unlike the checks courts can have on the legislature, or an upper house on the lower, or citizens on the government. It's not clear if journalists have some sort of special social status -- that seems to depend on who you talk to.

If we're going to address the moral case, it needs to be a little clearer what defines a journalist. I'd suggest, as a working definition, that a journalist researches current events and publishes that research in a timely fashion for general public consumption. (This means, of course, that many of those who work for the media corporations are not journalists. Shockingly, I'm okay with that.) That gives us three differentiae: researching current events, publishing research in a timely fashion, and publishing for general public consumption. Journalists are thus not historians (unless the history is directly relevant to current events). They are also not scholars, who can take years to publish their research. And they are not a select professional group: their audience is the general public (or some reasonable segment thereof). I don't see anything in that which would accord journalists a special status, allowing them to refuse to cooperate with the authorities.

Indeed, it seems that the usual reason advanced for giving journalists a special moral status which would allow them to resist the authorities is that what they are concealing is in the "public interest". But this is not a special status for journalists. Indeed, anyone who is (and I will suppose that this claim is true, as dealing with the false claims will take me too far afield) protecting the public interest by concealing information from the authorities is generally permitted (morally) to do so.

Thus, there is no special status for either bloggers or journalists that permits them to withhold information from the authorities. Moreover, a justification for general civil disobedience -- that it serves the public interest -- will cover the cases in which journalists are usually claimed to be justified in non-cooperation.

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