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Senate panel supports shield law for journalists

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Thursday backed legislation that would offer protections to a broad variety of journalists who do not want to divulge their confidential sources of information.

The key point of debate over the bill, which was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13 to 5 vote, had been the definition of a journalist.

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Although some members pressed for a narrower definition, the version sent to the Senate covers journalists who had an ‘‘employment relationship’’ for one year within the past 20 years, or three months within the past five years, and someone with a ‘‘substantial track record’’ of freelancing in the past five years.

Student journalists are covered under the media shield legislation, as are individuals who “a federal judge has decided should be able to avail him or herself of the protections of the privilege, consistent with the interests of justice and the protection of lawful and legitimate newsgathering activities.’’

Groups such as WikiLeaks would not be protected, congressional staffers said. They said agreement on the bill was a compromise between Senators Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who had proposed a broader definition, and Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin, Democrats from California and Illinois, respectively, who had proposed a narrower one.

‘‘This legislation ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive,’’ Schumer said in a statement. ‘‘I’m hopeful that both parties can come together and pass it quickly on the Senate floor.’’

In the spring, President Obama urged Congress to pass a media shield law, especially in light of criticism that the Justice Department had been too aggressive in pursuing leak investigations and was infringing on press freedom.

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