Reporters Without Borders voiced dismay today at yesterday’s decision by San Francisco federal judge William Alsup to jail freelance journalist and blogger (The Revolution Will Be Televised) Josh Wolf for contempt of court after he refused to surrender his unedited video footage of of demonstrations in San Francisco in June 2005, against a G8 summit taking place in Scotland. Wolf was taken from the court to a federal prison in Dublin, California, after being denied bail. His lawyer intended to file an appeal today and to again request Wolf’s release on bail.
“Sending this journalist to prison for protecting his material is both a serious violation of press freedom and a negation of the US constitution’s First Amendment,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Journalists are not supposed to be judicial auxiliaries or police auxiliaries.”
The press freedom organisation continued: “It is becoming urgent that the free flow of information bills that were presented to the US senate and house of representatives should be debated and adopted, as they uphold this privilege for the press. This would fill the legal void that exists at the federal level, where there is no recognition of this right although it is accepted by 32 states.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “Wolf’s absurd and disproportionate imprisonment violates the American Convention on Human Rights, which stipulates that journalists have the right not to disclose their sources. We call for his immediate release.”
Wolf’s unedited video footage was subpoenaed by a grand jury because investigators think it showed a police car being deliberately set on fire. Wolf denies having any such footage. Taking care to say that he was not attacking the confidentiality of sources, Judge Alsup ruled yesterday that Wolf was in contempt of court because the government’s right to see his video footage was more important than the protection he enjoys under the constitution. Aged 24, Wolf will remain in prison until he agrees to hand over his footage or until the grand jury’s term expires in July 2007.
Wolf’s lawyer, Jose Luis Fuentes, told Reporters Without Borders that the judge refused to look at the video footage in question during yesterday’s hearing, saying this was the grand jury’s job. The also judge said there was no federal shield law that exempted journalists from participating in a grand jury investigation.
The case came before the federal judicial authorities for the sole reason that it was a federal vehicle that was set on fire. If the state of California authorities had brought proceedings against Walsh, he would have had complete protection. Instead, he was subject to federal law which, paradoxically, affords less protection.
Wolf’s case highlights the precarious status of journalists in the United States and recalls the case of Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days in detention in 2001 and early 2002 for contempt of court after refusing to surrender her notes to a grand jury, and was freed only when the grand jury investigation ended. She could be questioned and arrested again if the investigation was ever reopened.
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