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Earlier this year, there was a debate in journalism circles and in the general public about who could be considered a journalist, as San Francisco videoblogger and media maker Josh Wolf was jailed after refusing to turn over video footage to federal authorities. After spending 226 days in jail, Wolf was dubbed the “longest-jailed journalist in American history.” But some people took issue with the use of the term journalist to describe the 24-year old blogger.

In this age of new media and as more and more people are persecuted for expressing themselves online, it seems that the debate about semantics should be the least of our worries. Worldwide, both journalists and bloggers are on the receiving end of threats by governments, and here in the U.S. many people still aren’t comfortable with the protections our government affords non-professional online publishers when it comes to what courts can force them to do.

This week, non-profit journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders announced the “Press Freedom Index, its list of countries in which journalists are most threatened. It found that bloggers and other online media are just as threatened as traditional journalists by governments who look to stifle the information they publish. According to the organization, some 26 bloggers and online journalists have been jailed worldwide since September of 2006.

Before the web, it was relatively easy for governments to control the information their citizens consumed. A paper could be shut down, and a journalist tried and convicted for speaking his or her mind. But the reach of the Internet and the accessibility to media-creating tools is making oppressive governments nervous, as is the pervasiveness of the web. As we’ve seen in the case of Burma and the government’s crackdown on media, if authorities shut down one blog or block one website, others will pop up the next day. As we discussed in our piece about the lengths some regimes will go to block social networking websites, there are even some governments, such as Iran, that are looking to ban broadband altogether.

It’s now clearer than ever that the Internet and blogging can be a powerful force for freedom of speech and change. The influence of bloggers is being taken seriously — so seriously that they are now as threatened by states which restrict free speech as any traditional journalist. Reporters without Borders announced in a press release this week: “Bloggers have to live with the same fears as traditional media journalists,” noting that in some countries bloggers must register with authorities, while others such as Egypt send bloggers to prison.

Unequal Protection

As an American blogger, I take my right to speak my mind online for granted at times. But the U.S. isn’t the bastion of freedom of online speech many believe it to be. On the Reporters Without Borders list, many, many countries outdo us; we currently rank 48th in press freedom. That means online journalists in countries like Croatia, Nicaragua and Ghana (among others) felt their freedom of expression less compromised than that of their U.S. counterparts.

This week the U.S. House of Representatives approved a “media shield bill” that would protect journalists from having to reveal their anonymous sources to federal courts, but the measure excludes non-professional bloggers from the legal shelter. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Lawmakers added language that says those covered by the act must regularly report the news and earn a substantial portion of their livelihood from journalism.”

While some journalism groups laud the move as a landmark step toward greater protection of free speech, the Chronicle also reports that this measure would exclude casual bloggers. I don’t know what the definition of a “casual blogger” is, but based on the loose language of the law it’s questionable whether I would be protected by the shield. MediaShift Idea Lab contributor David Ardia sums it up well in his recent post about the bill: “Do we really want judges to be deciding whether a journalist is earning enough money to qualify for protection?”

I can’t help but think that lawmakers’ understanding of blogs is less than deep. Many blogs today are more influential than some mainstream media sites, which makes the need for protection of those who write on those sites all the more important. What if a “non-professional” blogger does a guest post on a popular blog, and inspires the ire of a government? Are they not protected? Prominent political blogger Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos wonders the same thing, saying in a post yesterday: “This essentially means I’m protected, but diarists on the site are not.”

According to the Press Freedom Index, we still have a ways to go with regard to online freedom of expression (leading the list is Iceland, and Eritrea comes in last). It’s clear that beyond this report we should push for a broader, more inclusive definition of press in the digital age. While some countries will see bloggers and journalists as one in the same when it comes to persecution, our own government is making a distinction between the two with regard to protection of sources. When it comes to risking personal freedom and sometimes even one’s life for the good of sharing information with others, we shouldn’t draw a dividing line between journalists and bloggers, because in the end we’re all in this together.

What do you think? Should the definition of media be broadened to include everyone who publishes, professional or not? Do you feel that the U.S. media shield law should be expanded to protect everyone, or where would you draw the line? Are you comfortable speaking your mind online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.