Reporters Without Borders voiced serious concern as the Columbia district federal court on 3 November 2005 confirmed a 500-dollars day fine on four journalists who have refused to reveal their sources of information.
“Coming after the Judith Miller and Jim Taricani cases, this decision underlines the urgency for the US Congress of recognising journalists’ rights to protect their sources”, the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
“It is essential that the legislative corrects this judicial absurdity, under which the principle of protection of sources, which is basic to the job of journalist, is allowed in a number of states but not at the federal level.”
Two draft laws designed to resolve the problem were tabled at the Senate and the House of Representatives last February. “The Congress must take it up as quickly as possible,” said Reporters Without Borders.
James Risen, of the New York Times, Bob Drogin, of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert, of the Associated Press (AP), and Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN but now with ABC, had already been sentenced by the same jurisdiction but by a restricted panel on 28 June 2005.
The four journalists reported on the case of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused but later cleared of espionage. He subsequently began a lawsuit against the US government, which was suspected of leaking the charges against him to the press.
Questioned by Wen Ho Lee’s lawyer between 18 December 2003 and 8 January 2004, the journalists confirmed they had been given the information but refused to give its origin, citing the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The 500-dollar a day fine has not yet come into effect. The four journalists have 30 days to appeal to the Supreme Court, which refused to rule in the Judith Miller case. “Nevertheless the Lee case has fewer political implications. It is limited to the issue of protection of sources, which is why the Supreme Court could more readily agree to take it,” said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).
29.06.05 - A new setback for confidentiality of sources and investigative journalism
Reporters Without Borders denounces the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decision, on 28 June 2005, to uphold civil contempt of court findings against four journalists who refuse to reveal their sources for stories about former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
« This is the second ruling of this kind in two days" the worldwide press freedom organization said, referring to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision not to hear the Plame case. Such a chilling trend seriously undermines the media’s role as a countervailing force in society. These rulings seriously erode the right of Americans to be informed. No one will dare reveal sensitive information to journalists anymore if confidentiality of sources is not guaranteed. »
Reporters Without Borders pointed out that they are media professionals, not federal investigators. « By protecting the identity of their sources, they are safeguarding society’s right to monitor public affairs. »
« Source confidentiality is an inviolable principle, Reporters Without Borders continued. It is astonishing to see that this principle is better recognized today in 31 States - and in Washington D.C., where it is protected by ’shield laws’ - than at the federal level. We urge Congress to adopt, as soon as possible, the bills presented at the same time in the Senate and House of Representatives last February, which recognize journalists’ privilege to protect source confidentiality. »
On August 2004, US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, in Washington, fined five journalists 500 dollars each for each day that 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 found them in contempt for refusing to obey his order of October 14, 2003 to reveal their sources to the scientist’s lawyer. Application of the fine was suspended pending appeals. A hearing took place on May 9, 2005 before the DC Court of Appeals.
When questioned by the judge between December 18, 2003 and January 8, 2004, the journalists gave him all the information they could without revealing their sources, claiming protection under the first amendment to the national constitution.
Those five journalists are : Jeff Gerth and James Risen, of the daily The 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 appeals court today reversed a contempt finding against New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth, saying there was insufficient evidence against him to sustain such a conclusion. The four other reporters face fines of 500 dollars a day. Their lawyers have not yet disclosed whether or not they will file an appeal.
Lee brought a lawsuit against the US Departments of Energy and Justice, which he accuses of handing over private information about him implying that he was a suspect in a nuclear secrets case. Jackson said in his October 14, 2003 decision that Lee had the right to know which government officials had leaked the information that had led to his being named as a suspect in the media.