Journalists in Washington state cannot be forced to reveal their confidential sources. It’s what’s known as a news media shield law. In a recent ruling, a state court ruled the law could apply to reporters in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. This was the first test of Washington's shield law, which was passed by the state legislature in 2007.
Kazakhstan Looking For Computer Hackers
How, you may wonder, did courts in Washington state get involved in a case having to do with reporters in a country on the other side of the globe?
According to the Washington Court of Appeals ruling in The Republic of Kazakhstan v. DOES 100 LLC, officials in Kazakhstan were trying to find out who hacked into the country's government computers. They suspected people associated with the opposition newspaper, Respublika.
Respublika had registered with a Kirkland, Washington Internet domain name company, eNom, Inc. Kazakhstan asked a King County Superior Court in Washington state to issue a subpoena to eNom to turn over the opposition newspaper's registration information. Kazakhstan alleged the paper had published privileged and confidential emails from high ranking Kazakhstani officials.
Intimidation Allegedly Included A Human Skull On A Doorstep
In court filings, Irina Petrushova, the founder of Respublika, argued that turning over the Internet registration information would violate Washington state’s news media shield law and run contrary to "core constitutional values” in the United States.
Irina Petrushova says the paper is a forum for expressing opposition to the political regime in Kazakhstan and that its journalists have become targets of an aggressive intimidation campaign. According to court records, in 2002, Petrushova left Kazakhstan in fear for her life. She told the court that the intimidation tactics by the government have included firebombings, a human skull left on an employee's doorstep and a decapitated dog hung from a window grate at the newspaper offices.
Kazakhstan Denies Targeting Journalists, Says Shield Law Doesn't Apply
In its declaration in court, Kazahkstan argued that the news media shield law was inapplicable. And, a Kazakhstan official denied Petrushova's accusations that Kazakhstan targeted opposition journalists, asserting that Petrushova and her husband were working for a Kazakhstani national who was found by an English court to have defrauded a Kazakhstani bank of $4.6 billion.
State Appeals Court Sides With Journalists
The Court of Appeals of the State of Washington sided with the journalists and denied Kazakhstan’s request to force eNom, Inc. to turn over names associated with Respublika's Internet registration.
In the opinion, Judge Michael J. Trickey acknowledged this was the first time a high court in the state was ruling on Washington's media shield law. Arguing that the law was meant to protect journalists, Trickey wrote:
"The plain language of RCW 5.68.010(1)(a) is very broad. It protects against the disclosure of any information that would tend to identify a source. By requesting registrant information and IP addresses for the purpose of discovering the identity of the hackers, Kazakhstan impermissibly seeks information that falls within the plain language of RCW 5.68.010(1)(a)."
The ruling could be appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.