May 19, 2024 8:23 pm

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These five bills threaten a free press in Washington state

OLYMPIA, Wash., February 27, 2023—A set of five bills being considered this legislative session potentially impact a free and responsible press by restricting a journalist’s access to public information—hindering government oversite— according to the Allied Newspapers of Washington, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and the Washington State Association of Broadcasters. The bills include HB-1533, SB-5644, HB-1335, SB-5152, and SB-5643.

These journalism agencies believe the most troublesome bill for newspaper and broadcast, reporters is HB-1533 that exempts disclosure of information of agency employees or dependents who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, harassment or stalking.  The bill is sponsored by Representative Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma), and brought forward by the unions representing Department of Corrections workers who have attempted to close off public access to the identifies of prison workers in the past.

The bill in its current form, would allow state employees to submit an affidavit to their employer stating they have been a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, or stalking without having filed a prior police report or even having ever called the police. This would exempt all records from being released to the public including personal records, disciplinary records, work location, work telephone numbers, email exchanges, payroll history, or any records that would reveal the filer ever worked for the agency at all.

Additionally, the bill states the affidavit would be filed under penalty of perjury but the affidavit requires no documentation and would be made secret upon filing.

The bill was originally introduced to include state and local agencies, but the Governor’s Office requested that it be limited to state government due to local governments being unable to meet the conditions of protections. The Washington Education Association reinstated K-12 schools as well.

The Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington suspects that, if the unions are able to get the legislation passed, many Department of Corrections guards as well as employees across state government would also be included in their exemption of information to avoid public scrutiny from overstepping their command and control. The bill is currently in the House Rules Committee.

SB-5644, which deals with juvenile records, is also a hinderance to a free press in Washington as it would severely restrict the release of any records of juvenile offenders compromising the public’s right to know, the WSAB, who opposes the bill states. This would include law enforcement agencies that may consider a violent juvenile offender for hire.

Known as the “anti-doxing bill”, HB-1335, which deals with the unauthorized publication of personal identifying information, would adversely affect whistleblowing and investigative reporting by restricting media from gathering personal information in its duty to provide accurate information.

The People’s Privacy Act, SB-5643, which would create a charter of people’s personal data rights, is being opposed by the WSAB for its potential in harming broadcaster’s ability to manage databases for advertisers, listeners, and viewers ultimately impacting revenue. The bill would update the definition of personal data, covered entities (non-governmental agencies conducting business in the state that capture personal data), and the retention, disclosure and destruction of personal data.

Lastly, SB-5152, which defines synthetic media in campaigns for elective office, is being opposed by WSAB for holding stations accountable for “deep fakes,” or synthetic media, even though broadcasters are not permitted to alter or amend political ads they receive for broadcast. The bill would prohibit the use of synthetic media in independent expenditure campaign advertising unless it is accompanied by a disclaimer stating the image/video/audio had been manipulated under penalty of lawsuit by the candidate.

The WSAB also opposes expanding the definition of “news media” in the reporter’s shield law, and advertising tax proposals, and exempting 911 calls involving minors, being discussed this session.

While the WSAB opposed these bills they are in full support of HB-1725, which created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Persons Alert when it passed in 2022. A new set of bills have been introduced in this year’s session that would create a Task Force and provide resources to facilitate the implementation of a new alert. It also supports sports wagering and cannabis advertising by broadcasters.

RELATED ARTICLE: Lynnwood Times travels to Olympia to discuss key issues

2 Responses

  1. I would add a sixth bill to that list: HB 1333. The term “Domestic Violent Extremism” (DVE) is undefined. During testimony at the public hearing when the bill was introduced in committee, the Attorney General’s office stated that DVE includes views opposing governmental positions.

    If journalists are at risk of being dealt with as Domestic Violent Extremists for merely doing their job, including questioning government proclamations, they are not a free press.

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