September 20, 2006

Journalist gets 48-hour extension on protest footage

Freelance journalist Josh Wolf has two more days to return to prison or testify and produce the outtakes of footage he shot at a violent San Francisco protest in July 2005, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said today.

Wolf, 24, was to have reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin by 1 p.m. today. He received a last-minute order from the court at 11:17 a.m. giving him a 48-hour extension.

At a news conference today outside the prison, Wolf said: "Really, the only effect this has -- of sending me to jail prematurely and not allowing things to play out -- is, it silences me. To me, this does seem like an assault on the press."

Wolf said he needed more time to put his affairs in order before returning to prison for possibly nine months or more.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week rejected Wolf's appeal of a lower court's decision to hold him in contempt. The same three judges on Monday granted a federal prosecutor's motion to revoke bail.

Attorneys for Wolf, who has already spent a month behind bars before being released on bail Sept. 1, had hoped to keep their client free while he appeals the case. They plan to ask the full Ninth Circuit appeals court in San Francisco next month to review the case and may also take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jose Luis Fuentes, one of Wolf's attorneys, said they're confident that Wolf will prevail.

"We are hopeful that the Ninth Circuit will take a serious look at the constitutional issues that are at stake here. No one's above the law. Mr. Wolf is not above the law," he said. "But we do have a social contract -- our constitution, which grants the press freedom of the press, and the government should not abridge those rights that have been in this country for over 200 years."

In his argument for revoking bail, prosecutor Jeffrey Finigan wrote that Wolf must be jailed because the "coercive intent behind the recalcitrant witness statute is lessened with each passing day."

A journalist's rights to withhold unpublished material and to defend his sources are protected by California's shield law, but that law does not apply in federal court.

The subpoena for Wolf's footage was issued by a grand jury investigating the alleged attempted burning of a San Francisco police car at an anarchist-led rally July 8, 2005, in opposition to an economic summit taking place at the time in Scotland.

A police officer was hit on the head during the protest and suffered a fractured skull.

The grand jury is investigating the police car incident, which prosecutors say would be a federal crime because the Police Department receives money from Washington.

Neither incident was shown in footage that local television stations purchased from Wolf and aired. He refused to surrender the unaired portions, claiming a journalist's right to withhold unpublished material as well as confidential sources.

Last week, the federal appeals court cited "the long-established obligation of a reporter to comply with grand jury subpoenas" in ruling against Wolf.

The court said U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who held Wolf in contempt Aug. 1, did not have to balance the importance of the grand jury investigation and Wolf's rights as a journalist. However, the panel noted that such a balancing test favored the government.

Carlos Villarreal, executive director National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area, spoke in support of Wolf today.

"Make no mistake that Josh is going to prison for political reasons," he said. "We should remember why tax dollars are paying to incarcerate a completely nonviolent and, in fact, a very beneficial member of the community."

Others also have stood behind the freelance journalist.

"Josh Wolf is one of those people with the courage to be on the front lines in the fight for those rights. And we all have a stake in the outcome," Richard Knee of the National Writers Union, said in a statement today.

"At no time has Wolf tried to run away since these proceedings were brought against him. The month he already spent in prison was both absurd and unjust. Sending him back is cowardly and persecutory," Reporters Without Borders, a press-freedom organization, said in a statement.


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