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United States31 July 2006

Journalist could be jailed for refusing to surrender video to judicial authorities

Reporters Without Borders protested today against attempts by the US attorney’s office to have freelance journalist Josh Wolf held in contempt of court for refusing to surrender video he shot of violent anti-G8 demonstrations in San Francisco in July 2005. The request is to be heard before a federal court in San Francisco tomorrow.

“This situation highlights how urgent it is for the US congress to recognise the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources, a right that is absolutely essential to their work,” the press freedom organisation said. “This right is recognised in a number of US states but not at the federal level.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “As journalists are not police auxiliaries, congress must quickly support the proposed federal shield law that would guarantee them ‘qualified privilege’ as regards the protection of their sources. The Free Flow of Information Act would extend the same protection to journalists at the federal level that they enjoy under similar laws in 32 states.”

Wolf filmed the demonstrations in the Mission District of San Francisco in July 2005. He posted his footage on his website and it was aired by Kron TV, an independent news station. After circulating on the Internet, it was picked up by local affiliates of national TV networks.

After seeing the published footage, assistant US attorney Jeffrey Finigan asked Wolf to hand over all of the unedited footage he had shot of the incident. The government assertion’s is that someone attempted to set a police car on fire. Wolf denied having any more detailed footage of the object of the investigation or witnessing the alleged incident. He insisted that he was anyway protected by a Californian shield law under which journalists have the right both to protect the confidentiality of their sources and to refuse to surrender unpublished material and notes.

At tomorrow’s civil contempt hearing, Wolf faces the possibility of immediate imprisonment as well as having to pay 10,000 or 15,000 dollars in lawyers’ fees for his defence and for a potential appeal if the judge finds against him. Wolf told Reporters Without Borders he was he was nervous about the outcome, as the judge has behaved unpredictably throughout the ordeal.

At the same time, Wolf referred to the support he is receiving from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which is expected tomorrow to pass a resolution defending his rights as a journalist and calling on the federal authorities to respect the confidentiality of sources for the sake of press freedom, as laid down in the First Amendment to the US constitution.

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