The imprisonment of reporter Judith Miller was an unprecedented setback for press freedom in the Unite States and a milestone in the long legal battle to protect the privacy of journalistic sources. Two measures ensuring such protection at federal level are awaiting consideration by Congress.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed on 6 July 2005 for refusing to reveal her sources in a case involving the Bush administration. After more than three months she agreed to reveal them. This latest episode in the fierce legal battle over privacy of sources was a serious setback for press freedom in the country where two Washington Post journalists forced President Richard Nixon out of office 31 years earlier. Miller’s imprisonment was unprecedented but another journalist, Jim Taricani, was released from four months house arrest on 9 April for refusing to reveal sources and during which he was also banned from giving interviews or using the Internet.
Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper were each sentenced by a federal appeals court to 18 months in prison for “contempt of court” because of their refusal to reveal their sources to a grand jury investigating the case of Valerie Plame, who had been illegally named as a CIA agent in the media in 2003. Federal Judge Thomas F. Hogan gave the pair one week on 29 June to disclose their sources. Time and Cooper immediately agreed and handed over notes and tapes, but the New York Times refused and Miller spent three and a half months in prison until she changed her mind. Yet she had not actually written a word in the paper about the Plame case.
The case illustrated the confusion in the United States over privacy of sources. Miller won a similar case before a New York court on 24 February. So far, 31 US states have recognised the right to privacy of sources, but federal authorities do not. Two bills were introduced in Congress in early February to protect sources but are still to be debated. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia federal appeals court on 3 November upheld a $500 a day fine on four journalists as long as they refused to reveal their sources in another leak case also involving the federal government.