Reporters Without Borders said today it was extremely worried by yesterday’s decision by a federal appeal court in Washington confirming an order that Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine must go to prison for "contempt of court," for refusing to reveal their sources. The two journalists’ only hope now is the supreme court, if it agrees to consider their case.
"Sending these two reporters to prison because they refused to name their contacts is both a serious infringement on the practice of the journalistic profession and a violation of press freedom," the organization said. "It is imperative that the supreme court should accept the case and recognize the right of journalists to protect the identity of their sources, without which they cannot work."
Noting that 31 of states of the union recognize this right, Reporters Without Borders said it fell to the supreme court to fill the legal gap that exists at the federal level. "It is equally urgent that the two bills on the free flow of information that were submitted to the US senate and house of representatives in February should be debated and adopted, inasmuch as they enshrine this right for the press."
A three-judge panel of the federal appeal court on 15 February issued a ruling confirming a lower court judgment that Cooper and Miller should be imprisoned for up to 18 months for refusing to disclose their sources to a grand jury investigating a leak that exposed the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. It was this 15 February ruling that was confirmed yesterday by a full meeting of the appeal court held at the request of the journalists’ lawyers.
Their fate is now in the supreme court’s hands. However, the appeal court based its ruling on a 1972 supreme court decision (Branzburg v. Hayes) that journalists could not invoke any right to protect their sources before the courts.
Paradoxically, Miller obtained a favourable ruling in a similar case before a New York district judge on 24 February. The New York judge based his decision on First Amendment privilege as interpreted in previous court rulings.