August 04, 2006

Latest Jailing of Journalist Sending A Message to Bloggers?

The jailing of a video journalist this week is turning up the heat on the growing list of reporters ordered to cough up information to federal grand juries. It also is sending a powerful signal: cooperate or face prison time.

Trying to compel journalists to testify is an increasingly popular tactic among federal investigators seeking all types of information. Even the occasional incarceration of reporters is enough to put the squeeze on the news media.

Prosecutors are exploiting the absence of a federal shield law protecting journalists from prosecutors who seek their sources or material, said Duffy Carolan, a media attorney at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

“The federal government is seizing upon a weakness in the law,” she said.

Carolan, who has represented The Associated Press in the past, said the government is increasingly becoming more aggressive “in going after reporters in the grand jury context.”

Freelance video journalist and blogger Joshua Wolf was jailed Tuesday for refusing to hand over his unaired footage from a July 2005 protest.

Wolf does not fit the classic profile of a reporter trying to protect a source. He describes himself as an activist and journalist, a freelance cameraman who also runs a blog.

He videotaped a protest in which anarchists were suspected of vandalizing a city police car. One San Francisco police officer was struck during the rally against the G-8 economic summit last year and sustained a fractured skull.

Wolf refused to turn over complete tapes of the demonstration, which federal authorities said might help them identify people who committed crimes.

Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the case demonstrates that the federal government is willing to cast a wider net in seeking information from the media.

“It means they go after everybody — mass media and independent,” she said. “This is the first time it’s been pretty clear to me the federal government is interested in what bloggers do.”

Wolf is the first journalist jailed for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury since New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail last year for refusing to testify in the investigation into who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name.

While jailings are infrequent, the number of subpoenas seeking to force reporters to testify has grown, Dalglish said.

Federal authorities are trying to compel the testimony of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters — Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada — who obtained the grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and other participants in the government’s steroids investigation.

The reporters have challenged a subpoena ordering them to divulge who leaked them transcripts from the secret grand jury proceedings. They are due to appear in court Friday for a hearing on their bid to quash the subpoena.

California has one of the nation’s most protective statutes shielding journalists from prosecutors’ inquiries. The law generally allows journalists to decline to divulge unpublished material to state authorities. No such shield exists in federal investigations, however, and the state law does not extend to federal courts.

Some media observers said the Wolf case — involving the alleged vandalism of city, not federal property — should never have been in federal court. But prosecutors argued that federal money helped pay for the police cruiser that was allegedly torched in the protest.

“I’d like them to tell me 10 other instances where cop cars were vandalized in the last year where the FBI stepped in to investigate,” Dalglish said. “I think it was done here for sole purpose of avoiding the strong state shield law.”

Luke T. Macaulay, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office here, said his office did not initiate the federal probe to circumvent the California law. Other federal officials said the FBI got involved before it knew Wolf and his tapes existed.

“We have an obligation to the community to investigate and gather relevant and material evidence of serious crimes,” Macaulay said.

The San Francisco Police Department asked federal investigators to take over the case, said city and federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation remains open.

The police department urgently wanted to investigate the matter because it believed there had been an attempted murder on a police officer, the city official said.

The department believed the city’s Board of Supervisors would not support the probe, so they called on federal authorities since the federal government subsidizes the acquisition of police cars, the officials said.

A limited shield law for journalists in federal cases is currently under consideration by Congress.


Post a Comment

<< Home