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Hawaii news coalition: Senate killed shield law

Anita Hofschneider, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- A coalition of Hawaii news media is blaming the state Senate for failing to extend a journalism shield law past its expiration on June 30.

In particular, they're blaming Sen. Clayton Hee.

"The way one man — one man — could dictate the demise of the shield law is something that should concern the entire public," Jeff Portnoy, an attorney representing the Hawaii Shield Law Coalition, said at a press conference on Wednesday. The group includes more than 20 organizations including the Society of Professional Journalists and The Associated Press. "It may be the shield law this time, but it could be another important piece of legislation the next time."

The senator from Kaneohe was not immediately available for comment.

The law protecting journalists from revealing their sources and notes became the subject of a political showdown this week after lawmakers disagreed about proposed changes.

A bill to extend the law but limit its scope was up for a vote in both chambers on Tuesday. At the last minute, the House adopted an amendment that deleted the changes both chambers negotiated last week.

Hee, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, was the man behind the changes. He wanted to limit protections for all journalists and exclude those who work for digital newspapers and free publications.

Hee has previously said that he wants to clarify the existing law. He said his changes are based on advice from the attorney general's office. The senator has also criticized online media for false and mean-spirited reporting, and in one hearing distributed copies of the 1948 Chicago Tribune front-page headline "Dewey Defeats Truman," referencing one of journalism's most famous instances of getting the news wrong.

Hee's suggestions were harshly criticized by Hawaii's news media leaders. Stirling Morita, president of the Society of Professional Journalists in Hawaii, said Wednesday that Hee's revisions "afforded no protection for reality" given the changing media landscape.

Rather than go along with Hee's changes, the House amended the bill Tuesday to extend the shield law for two more years, promising to study the issue further with a task force.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki told The Associated Press that the amendment was a last-minute decision but he had hoped the Senate would follow suit.

Hours later, a divided Senate passed its version of the bill without responding to the House amendment.

Saiki said Wednesday that the bill is dead because of the House and Senate disagreement.

Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon that the House is responsible for the bill's death. He says the House changed the bill significantly by proposing to extend the law by two years rather than make it permanent.

"To introduce such a substantive change, moments before the Senate began its floor session, lacked the transparency and openness that the public expects and deserves," Galuteria said.

Portnoy says the news media coalition favored making the current law permanent without any changes beyond removing a sunset provision. It also preferred the two-year House extension over the Senate version.

Sen. Les Ihara was one of nine senators who voted against the Senate proposal. He said he supports the existing shield law but he didn't have enough votes to introduce an amendment.

Ihara agreed with Galuteria that the House killed the bill by introducing an amendment without coordinating with the Senate.

Sen. Sam Slom says it's possible the measure could be revived before the Legislature ends its 2013 session on Thursday.

"It's not over until it's over," he said.

But with one day left, the prospect looks unlikely. Saiki says he hopes the bill's death will allow the Legislature go back to the drawing board and come up with a proposal everyone can support. But Portnoy said he doesn't see the point of returning to the Legislature next year to advocate for the bill if Hee remains in power.

"When the Senate chair holds up 'Dewey Defeats Truman' as an example of what journalism is, you know that you don't have a chance," he said.