JOURNALISM WATCH….Over the past few years, journalists have increasingly faced subpoenas in both criminal and civil cases that require them to turn over their unpublished material and give up their confidential sources. Josh Wolf, a freelance journalist currently in jail for refusing to turn over video outtakes to the FBI, is the latest. Dan Zoll, a producer of Washington Monthly on the Radio, talked to him from federal prison in Dublin, where he’s being held, and asked if he thought this current string of cases is just a coincidence:
I think that given all of these situations one after the other, it appears that there is a campaign to undermine the rights of journalists. I mean, more and more of them are happening in recent years than we?ve seen in the past. They?re also holding the reporters’ balls to the fire much further. Judith Miller was in jail for 85 days. Prior to that they?d be held in contempt over the weekend and let go. It seems like an assault on the First Amendment to me, quite clearly.
Wolf shot some video of a demonstration in San Francisco last year, during which a burning mattress was slipped underneath an SFPD police car. [Note: See update below.] Federal prosecutors sidestepped California’s shield law by claiming that because the SFPD receives federal funds, this was therefore a federal case. If this tissue-thin excuse is upheld, it would essentially gut every state shield law in the country. Perhaps it’s time to pass a federal shield law?
In other news, a federal judge has ruled that a private citizen who disseminates classified information related to national security can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. The judge wrote:
[B]oth common sense and the relevant precedent point persuasively to the conclusion that the government can punish those outside of the government for the unauthorized receipt and deliberate retransmission of information relating to the national defense.
Journalists, of course, are private citizens, and if this ruling is upheld it could apply to virtually anyone who writes about anything the government prefers you don’t hear about. The reporters who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses or wrote about the NSA’s domestic spying program, for example, could all be prosecuted.
So while they’re working on that shield law, perhaps Congress could also clarify that the Espionage Act was meant to apply to spies, not to reporters who have earned the disfavor of whoever happens to be in power at the moment. Just a thought.
UPDATE: Regarding the Josh Wolf story, Megan Books of the Grand Jury Resistance Project writes to say that although the “burning mattress” has been in news accounts, it isn’t actually true. A videotape of the demonstration is here, and she says:
There was a piece of styrofoam (you can see the foam in the very beginning that the protestors are holding as signs) that was next to a firecracker. The styrofoam was smoldering from contact with the firecracker [and a police car drove over it]. I don’t know when the theory about the mattress started or why, but once it got picked up, it’s been everywhere. I wouldn’t really even call it a “fire.” That’s why the whole Grand Jury is even more ridiculous. It’s a fishing expedition that has no real goal.