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US government to limit ability to seize journalist records

The U.S. Justice Department on Friday proposed curbing the ability of prosecutors to seize reporters' records while investigating leaks to the media, after complaints that journalists' rights were violated in recent high-profile cases. A revised set of guidelines proposed by the department said that search warrants would not be sought against journalists carrying out "ordinary news-gathering activities." In another change, the department would in most instances notify news organizations in advance if a subpoena is being sought to obtain phone records. The changes were contained in a report which the department prepared at the request of President Barack Obama and which was given to the president by Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Newspaper Association of America praised the changes but both said that they fell short of what was needed. "We continue to believe that an impartial judge should be involved when there is a demand for a reporter's records, because so many important rights hinge on the ability to test the government's need for records," the Reporters Committee said in an emailed statement. NAA called for a federal shield law, which would also mandate a federal judge review any request for confidential source information.

Two cases sparked debate earlier this year about whether the Justice Department had been overzealous in investigating government leaks and had infringed on rights of free speech. In one, prosecutors obtained a warrant to search Fox News correspondent James Rosen's emails. He was named a "co-conspirator" in a federal leaks probe involving his reporting on North Korea.

In the other, the Justice Department seized Associated Press phone records without prior notification as part of a probe into leaks about a 2012 Yemen-based plot to bomb a U.S. airliner.

Erin Madigan White, an AP spokeswoman, said the description of the guidelines offered by the department "indicates they will result in meaningful additional protection for journalists." A Fox spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

One of the proposed changes would require the director of national intelligence to certify that a leak threatened national security before an investigation into an unauthorized disclosure could start.

Another would create a role for the department's director of public affairs and privacy and civil liberties officer in reviewing decisions relating to journalists.

The changes will go into effect "almost immediately," a Justice Department official said, but it was not immediately clear exactly when that would be.

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