Area: 9,629,090 sq.km.
Head of state: President George W. Bush
The Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the presidential election campaign pulled the US media out of the patriotic lethargy that had gripped it since the 11 September 2001 attacks. The main enemy of press freedom is now seen as the judiciary. Federal judges punished several journalists for refusing to reveal their sources.
Protecting journalistic sources became even more of a bone of contention between the media and the courts in 2004. Jim Taricani, of the local NBC TV station WJAR-TV 10, was sentenced to six months house arrest for "contempt of court" for refusing to reveal them, escaping prison only because of his health. A federal court had demanded that he say who gave him a secret FBI videotape made during a corruption enquiry.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller were still waiting at year-end for a ruling on their appeal against a prison sentence for refusing to say who illegally revealed to them the name of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. In August, five journalists were fined $500 for each day they continued to conceal their sources for stories naming a former nuclear weapons scientist later cleared of spying.
The first amendment to the federal constitution about freedom of expression does not specifically ensure privacy of sources and is open to a judge’s interpretation. Lack of such court protection threatens investigative journalism since people with sensitive information would no longer dare talk to the media.
Protection is provided in 31 states and in Washington D.C. through "shield laws" but not at federal level. Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd introduced a bill on 9 November to ban federal courts and the legislative and executive branches from forcing journalists to reveal their sources.
Several more foreign journalists were deported during the year for not having journalist visas, including Elena Lappin, of the British daily The Guardian, who was arrested when she flew into Los Angeles on 3 May, was held in prison overnight and then put on a plane back to London. Thirteen journalists were expelled for the same reason in 2003.
All were from countries whose citizens did not generally need entry visas. Journalists have always needed them to work in the US but until the 11 September attacks, the rule was not applied. Since then, borders controls have been tightened but journalists were not told they were no longer exempt. Strong media protests forced the immigration service to announce on 21 May that journalists arriving without a visa would be allowed in and told of the rule. If they turned up a second time without a visa, they would be deported.
A poor record in overseas areas under US control
The Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index in October scored the United States well inside its own borders but relegated it to 108th place (out of 167) for attacks on press freedom in US-occupied Iraq. The US army was involved in the death of five journalists and media assistants there during the year, the same number as in 2003. US officials in each case refused to conduct serious investigations in the deaths (see section on Iraq).
Journalists visiting the US military base at Guantanamo (Cuba), where suspected members and sympathisers of Al-Qaeda are held, are still strictly supervised since the worldwide publicity given in 2002 to photos of prisoners being treated in a degrading manner.
The US media in crisis?
Some US media used the presidential election campaign to examine mistakes they had made during the Bush administration, such as their failure to challenge the government’s claim that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction." The error badly damaged the reputation abroad of the US media, which had been considered since the Watergate scandal 30 years ago as a good example of impartiality and effective challenge to the powers-that-be. Only a few TV figures and three newspapers - the Washington Post, The New York Times and the weekly New Republic - admitted their failings.
The revelation in April of US torture of Iraqi detainees at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison pulled the US media out of the patriotic lethargy that had gripped it since the 11 September attacks. Since the attacks, criticising US policy in Iraq had been considered unpatriotic in a country united behind its president in fighting terrorism. The fact that 128 newspapers recommended voting for presidential candidate John F. Kerry and only 105 for Bush (according to Editor & Publisher) confirmed that such unity no longer applied to the press.
9 journalists were arrested
8 court cases challenged the privacy of sources
Caught in a federal judge’s clutches
A dozen journalists are being prosecuted for refusing to reveal their sources to federal courts in a country where the law says you do not have to testify against yourself. Some may be sent to prison. A growing threat to the right of Americans to be informed by the media, as Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, himself a target, explains.
Save for a couple of tickets for speeding, I’ve never been in trouble with the law. I studied hard in school, went to college and after thinking about going into politics, I decided to go into journalism. I thought it was interesting and fun and did something for the public good.
I’ve done well at it, having written for publications like Newsweek, The New Republic, and now Time magazine, where I cover The White House. So you can imagine my surprise at finding myself in the crosshairs of a federal prosecutor and facing the possibility of 18 months in prison.
The trouble started in 2003 when the American columnist Robert Novak revealed the name of an CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Revealing the name of a CIA officer can be a federal crime and there was an uproar over who leaked Plame’s name to Novak. Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had just a few weeks prior to Novak’s column, publicly criticized the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s plans to develop nuclear weapons and many saw the leaking of Plame’s name as payback.
About then, I co-authored a small article on the Time website noting that there seemed to be a "war on Wilson" and adding that "government officials" had also noted to Time that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. The outcry over the Plame leak led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to find the leaker.
In May 2004, I was subpoenaed by the special prosecutor to find out what I knew about the leaks. I refused to cooperate and fought the subpoena in the courts - with the wonderful backing of my employer - until August 2004 when the one source that the prosecutor seemed interested in, agreed unambiguously and personally to allow me to testify. So I gave a deposition and thought that my legal troubles were at an end.
Shortly thereafter, though, the special prosecutor subpoenaed me again asking me to reveal other confidential sources. This time, there seemed no compromise to be had. And so I found myself back in court where, in January 2005, the case now stands. The case has been expensive and exhausting. I spent Christmas wondering if the court would rule and I’d be hauled off to jail. I have not told my six-year-old son about my travails and am not sure how I will explain it to him if I’m taken away.
If I’m ordered to testify, I plan to refuse and serve what could be a prison sentence or home detention. I don’t relish the prospect of going to jail and I don’t consider myself a martyr or even especially brave. But I do believe that journalists should have reasonable protection of their confidential sources.
In fact, most of the 50 American states afford legal protection to reporters and many countries do too. For instance, the Organization of American States, of which the United States is the leading member, is on record as supporting the right of journalists to protect their sources. But because my case is being handled in federal court, I must fight for legal protection.
Fortunately, throughout this process, I’ve been lucky to have the strong support of Time and its parent companies Time, Inc. and Time-Warner. The magazine’s managing editor, Jim Kelly, has stood by me in court; the company’s attorneys have provided me the best possible representation.
Friends and colleagues have been supportive, too, including Reporters Without Borders which, unsolicited, reached out to me, supporting our legal case in court. Its Washington representative, Lucie Morillon, was a reassuring figure at my court hearings and eager to help. Reporters Without Borders usually finds itself in places like Cuba and Syria helping journalists. I’m sure it’s strange for the organization, as it is for me, to find that journalists in the United States also can face imprisonment for simply doing their job.
Washington, January 2005