August 02, 2006

Journalist jailed for refusing to give up tapes of anarchist anti-G8 protest

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

A freelance journalist was jailed today for refusing to give videotapes to a federal grand jury that show an anarchist protest in San Francisco in which a police car was allegedly set on fire.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup found Josh Wolf in contempt of court for failing to comply with a subpoena that the grand jury issued in February for tapes Wolf made of the July 2005 demonstration in the Mission District. Wolf posted some of the videos on his Web site -- -- and sold that footage to local television stations. Federal prosecutors demanded the rest of the tapes, saying they might contain evidence of attempted arson.

Prosecutors contend that burning a police car is a federal crime because the San Francisco Police Department receives federal funds. Wolf and his lawyers accuse the government of manipulating the case to sidestep California's shield law, which allows journalists to withhold unpublished material and confidential sources from prosecutors. There is no federal shield law, and the state law does not apply in federal court.

Wolf, 24, could be jailed until next July, when the grand jury's term expires. Alsup denied his requests for bail or for a 10-day stay while he asks the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the contempt order.

The case is "a slam dunk for the government,'' the judge said at the end of a 2 1/2 - hour hearing. Noting that the events Wolf photographed took place in public and involved no confidential sources, Alsup said there was a "legitimate need for law enforcement to have direct images of who was doing what to that police car.''

"Every person, from the president of the United States down to you and me, has to give information to the grand jury if the grand jury wants it,'' Alsup said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Finigan told the judge that Wolf was "placing himself above every other citizen in our society'' by defying the grand jury. Finigan said the subpoena had been approved by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as provided by Justice Department guidelines in cases against journalists.

Wolf's lawyer, Jose Luis Fuentes, argued that requiring journalists to surrender unpublished material, whether in the form of notes or unseen videos, would hinder their newsgathering ability and make their sources less likely to trust them. He urged Alsup to look at the videos Wolf was withholding and decide whether the government had a legitimate need for them.

The judge refused, saying Fuentes should have submitted them during the previous months of briefings and hearings.

Unless a journalist's right to withhold such material is recognized, "we're not going to have Mr. Wolf or any reporters covering protests,'' Fuentes told Alsup. "Confidential sources are not going to come forward. They're (journalists) going to be viewed as investigative arms of the government.''

The hearing took place three days before another judge is scheduled to consider the Justice Department's request for contempt-of-court orders against two Chronicle reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, for refusing to reveal their confidential sources of grand jury testimony. The reporters published articles and a book about steroids in sports, based in part on closed-door testimony by the Giants' Barry Bonds and other prominent athletes.

E-mail Bob Egelko at

31 July 2006

Journalist could be jailed for refusing to surrender video to judicial authorities

Reporters Without Borders protested today against attempts by the US attorney’s office to have freelance journalist Josh Wolf held in contempt of court for refusing to surrender video he shot of violent anti-G8 demonstrations in San Francisco in July 2005. The request is to be heard before a federal court in San Francisco tomorrow.

“This situation highlights how urgent it is for the US congress to recognise the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources, a right that is absolutely essential to their work,” the press freedom organisation said. “This right is recognised in a number of US states but not at the federal level.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “As journalists are not police auxiliaries, congress must quickly support the proposed federal shield law that would guarantee them ‘qualified privilege’ as regards the protection of their sources. The Free Flow of Information Act would extend the same protection to journalists at the federal level that they enjoy under similar laws in 32 states.”

Wolf filmed the demonstrations in the Mission District of San Francisco in July 2005. He posted his footage on his website and it was aired by Kron TV, an independent news station. After circulating on the Internet, it was picked up by local affiliates of national TV networks.

After seeing the published footage, assistant US attorney Jeffrey Finigan asked Wolf to hand over all of the unedited footage he had shot of the incident. The government assertion’s is that someone attempted to set a police car on fire. Wolf denied having any more detailed footage of the object of the investigation or witnessing the alleged incident. He insisted that he was anyway protected by a Californian shield law under which journalists have the right both to protect the confidentiality of their sources and to refuse to surrender unpublished material and notes.

At tomorrow’s civil contempt hearing, Wolf faces the possibility of immediate imprisonment as well as having to pay 10,000 or 15,000 dollars in lawyers’ fees for his defence and for a potential appeal if the judge finds against him. Wolf told Reporters Without Borders he was he was nervous about the outcome, as the judge has behaved unpredictably throughout the ordeal.

At the same time, Wolf referred to the support he is receiving from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which is expected tomorrow to pass a resolution defending his rights as a journalist and calling on the federal authorities to respect the confidentiality of sources for the sake of press freedom, as laid down in the First Amendment to the US constitution.

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