WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Thursday to protect reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources, with exceptions in national security and other cases.
The Free Flow of Information Act, which had bipartisan support, was passed by the panel in a 13-5 vote and sent to the full Senate for consideration.
"This legislation ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive," Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who sponsored the bill with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, said in a statement.
Although many states have media shield laws, efforts to pass a federal one have foundered, usually over national security concerns.
President Barack Obama called on Schumer to reintroduce a version of a bill proposed in 2009 that did not pass and told the Justice Department to develop guidelines to protect journalists.
The reintroduction of the bill came shortly after news that the Justice Department, while probing a leak of classified information, had secretly seized records of phone calls made by Associated Press reporters.
The bill sets out rules for subpoenas and would require prosecutors to convince a judge that the information sought from journalists would prevent or mitigate terrorism or harm national security.
Journalists would have no privilege to withhold information in cases where divulging it would prevent or mitigate death, kidnapping and bodily harm.
They also could not withhold information when it was obtained by observing or carrying out a crime, except for leaking.
The bill would apply to employees or agents of organizations that disseminate news through broadcasts or in print, including through internet sites or mobile apps.
It also covers people with a substantial track record of freelance reporting, student journalists and those who had worked for media organizations. The bill allows judges to extend protection to others who may not be covered by the other standards.
The bill protects journalists and their employers from having to reveal information, including the identity of sources, that a reporter gets under a promise of confidentiality and while gathering news.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Tim Gaynor)