Reporters Without Borders protested today at a federal judge’s decision holding five journalists in contempt for refusing to reveal their sources and warned that such rulings "seriously undermined" the media’s role as a countervailing force in society.
"This is the second ruling of this kind in less than two weeks," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "Protecting sources is more and more an issue between the US media and courts, who have to understand that if sources are not allowed to be confidential, nobody will dare reveal sensitive information to journalists."
On 18 August, US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, in Washington, fined the journalists $500 for each day they continued to conceal their sources for their stories about a former nuclear weapons scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was once suspected of spying. He ruled that their refusal to obey his order of 14 October last year to reveal them to the scientist’s lawyer was contempt. Application of the fine was suspended pending appeals.
The journalists were questioned by the judge between 18 December last year and 8 January this year and gave him all the information they could without revealing their sources, claiming protection under the first amendment to the national constitution.
The five journalists are Jeff Gerth and James Risen, of the daily New York Times, Robert Drogin, of the daily Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert, of the Associated Press news agency, and Pierre Thomas, who was working for the TV network CNN at the time.
The latest ruling is part of Lee’s lawsuit against the US departments (ministries) of energy and justice, which he accuses of handing over private information about him suggesting he was a suspect in a nuclear secrets case. Jackson said in his 14 October decision that Lee had the right to know which government officials had leaked the information that had led to him being named as a suspect in the media.
Two other cases in progress
On 6 August this year, Federal Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered the "confinement" of Time reporter Matthew Cooper for contempt of court after he refused to testify before a grand jury investigating the possibly illegal disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
The magazine, which is backing Cooper, was also ordered to pay $1,000 (820 euros) for every day Cooper refused to reveal his sources for the identity of Plame. The two rulings were immediately suspended pending appeal.
Jim Taricani, of the TV station WJAR-TV 10, was fined $1,000 a day on 16 March as long as he refused to reveal who had given him an FBI videotape (which the station broadcast in February 2001) showing a former Providence (Rhode Island) city employee accepting a bribe from an FBI informer. The city’s then-mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr., was subsequently jailed for five years for corruption.
Imprisoned for 168 days
Freelance reporter Vanessa Leggett was jailed between July 2001 and January 2002 for contempt of court after refusing to disclose to a Texas federal court the content of an interview she had with the main suspect in a crime case. Her release was due to the expiry of the court’s order. She appealed to the federal supreme court, saying that her rights to protection under the first and fifth amendments to the constitution concerning freedom of expression and self-incrimination were violated, but the appeal was rejected in April 2002.