News organisations are being assured by the Government that a proposed bill will not destroy their right to protect their sources.

But critics say that does not mean that journalists' sources will remain protected, as a judge can order them to answer questions or release documents to police.

The powers of the Search and Surveillance Bill have come under fire from news organisation and civil libertarians, who say that it goes too far in removing the right to silence in questioning in relation to serious fraud or gang crimes.

The right to silence remains if answering questions amounted to self-incrimination.

The bill has also been criticised for potentially weakening the fourth estate, making it less likely for whistle-blowers to come forward and harder to hold institutions to account.

At the heart of the criticism are examination and production orders, which would compel a person to answer questions or release documents. At the moment only the Serious Fraud Office has this power, but the bill would extend it to police.

Non-compliance could result in a one year jail term.

Under the bill, a journalist could refuse an examination or production order under media privilege - defined in the Evidence Act. But that privilege can be challenged before a district court judge, who could declare it invalid.

The International Federation of Journalists said the bill would force journalists to answer police questions or hand over documents such as media sources and notes.

Media Freedom Committee chairman Tim Murphy, who is the editor of the Herald, said media should be exempt from the orders.

Even if journalists refused an order, they would have to give the disputed material to a judge to decide, thereby contravening the confidentiality undertaking, he said.

"The danger is that whistle-blowers will not be disposed to providing information if the police have further avenues to use to force confidential information into the open."

Justice Minister Simon Power said a judge ruling on the validity of media privilege meant that reporters would still be able to protect their sources, while also ensuring that the orders would be used only when appropriate, reasonable, and proportionate.

In Parliament yesterday, Green MP Keith Locke asked if the bill would "erode the democratic role of working journalists in New Zealand" because a subsequent judicial hearing of a right to privilege would be ineffective "if the Government agencies have already run off with documents containing the journalists' confidential sources".

Acting Justice Minister Chris Finlayson said that was "hyperbolic nonsense".

Labour MP Charles Chauvel said his party would support the bill if production and examination orders did not apply to media, applied to the Serious Fraud Office in the same way as proposed for the police and had a higher threshold that needed to be met before they were used.

A spokesman for Mr Power said the minister had an open mind about possible changes to the bill.

- Additional reporting NZPA