Monday, May 14, 2007
Proposed shield law would enable journalists to protect their sources.
Josh Wolf is finally free — after seven months in prison for refusing to let federal agents use him and his videotape as a substitute for their own investigative work.
Wolf, 24, a freelance video photographer who was never accused of a crime, served more time behind bars than many felons. His offense? He shot videotape of a chaotic anti-globalization street protest in San Francisco, then refused to hand it over to federal prosecutors or testify before a grand jury. His purpose, as he often stated, was to defend the principle that, in a nation in which the Constitution supposedly protects freedom of the press, the government has no business meddling in newsgathering processes.
Wolf, released last month, was just the latest victim of prosecutors' increasingly frequent attempts to make people who gather news de facto agents of the government — a practice that members of Congress from both ends of the political spectrum are labeling an assault on the free flow of information. Among others:
*Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times, spent 85 days behind bars in 2005 because she refused to respond to pressure from the special prosecutor charged with finding out who was responsible for the public "outing" of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Miller had never written a story on the subject, and it turned out that the special prosecutor knew all along who the initial leaker had been.
*Jim Taricani, a TV reporter in Providence, was hauled before a judge in 2004 because he refused to reveal who gave him a videotape showing a former city official taking a bribe from an FBI informant. Taricani was placed in electronic shackles and confined to his home for four months.
No reliable figures exist, but anecdotal reporting by watchdog groups shows a clear jump in recent years in attempts by prosecutors and private attorneys to commandeer journalists' work and turn them into little more than investigators for anyone who can wield a subpoena. The Justice Department admits at least 45 such cases in the past four years and says the list is incomplete.
The principle at stake is simply this: Journalists cannot act as independent watchdogs on government officials and others in power if they are routinely conscripted to be agents of the government. Strip away that role, and the nation — which is built in part on the existence of a free and independent press — can suffer grievously.
Journalists who relied on unnamed sources, and protected unpublished notes and photos, are responsible for exposing major scandals such as Watergate, Enron and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. But when whistle-blowers have reason to fear they might risk retaliation because their names and information won't be protected, such sources will dry up and the public will be the loser.
Two weeks ago, Washington state joined 32 others that have "reporter shield laws," which allow reporters to keep their sources private. But no such law restricts the long arm of the federal government.
Bipartisan legislation introduced this month would fix that. The Free Flow of Information Act would require lawyers seeking to commandeer a reporter's or photographer's work to convince a judge first that the information being sought serves a greater public interest than maintaining the public interest in gathering the news and protecting the free flow of information. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., one of Congress' most rigorous conservatives and one of the bill's prime sponsors, says "a free and independent press is the only agency that has complete freedom to hold government accountable."
The news media are far from perfect, but the government's abuse of people such as Wolf, Miller and Taricani shows the danger of allowing federal agents unfettered power to engage in punitive fishing expeditions in the name of the law.
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