Mrs Nancy Pelosi, Speaker-elect House of Representatives
Mr Harry Reid, Deputy Speaker-elect of the Senate
You will take over, in January 2007, as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Deputy Speaker of the Senate. Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation that defends press freedom, hopes that the new majority in Congress, as a result of 7 November 2006 elections, will remedy a serious deterioration in freedom of the media in the United States under the previous Congress. Two major challenges await you in this regard.
The first, concerns the federal shield law on the protection of journalists’ confidential sources. On 2 February 2005, representatives Mike Pence (R, Indiana) and Rick Boucher (D, Virginia) introduced a bill entitled “Free Flow of Information Act”, which guarantees journalists “absolute privilege” in protecting sources, modified to “qualified privilege” in certain criminal cases. Senators Richard Lugar (R, Indiana) and Christopher J. Dodd (D, Connecticut) introduced a draft law in the same terms on 9 February.
These law-making initiatives would correct a serious legal inconsistency under which the right of journalists to protect their sources is recognised in 33 of the 50 States but not at the federal level. They unfortunately came up against opposition from the government in the name of the imperative of “national security”, and some journalists - like Judith Miller, of the New York Times, in 2005 - were sentenced to prison by the federal justice system, when a local court had previously found in their favour. Apart from the fact that the press should not act as an auxiliary to the police or courts, the “national security” argument cannot be justified in cases brought against journalists for “contempt of court”.
The plight of Josh Wolf is a case in point. This 24-year-old freelance journalist and blogger has been detained on the order of a federal court since 18 September 2006 for having refused to hand over to the courts his video footage of a demonstration against the G8. He had already been imprisoned between 1st August and 1st September. Is it constitutional for a citizen to be punished twice for the same reason? Also facing prison for identical reasons are Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the daily San Francisco Chronicle, who investigated steroid use among athletes. The independence of the press is at stake. The legislature cannot be satisfied with a status quo which is indefensible.
The other major challenge is what is seen by the international community as the legal and humanitarian scandal of the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners. Among the 400 detainees in the camp, since 13 June 2002, is Sudanese cameraman for al-Jazeera Sami Al-Haj. Not only is his case emblematic of the treatment inflicted on individuals imprisoned mostly without facing any charge and outside all legal framework (torture, deprivation of medical treatment and sleep, absence of contact with families, repeated violations of the right to a defence), but it is a case of government hounding of a foreign media. Sami Al-Haj is being held at Guantanamo simply for having refused to “confess” to fantasy links between al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda.
While the Supreme Court on 29 June 2006 declared unconstitutional the military tribunals intended to try the Guantanamo detainees, the former Congress hurriedly voted through a law promulgated on 17 October allowing the recourse to torture. This law must be repealed, the camp closed and Sami Al-Haj unconditionally and promptly released. The American electorate has punished abuses in the “war against terror”. We hope it will be heard.
Please accept my appreciation in advance for giving this letter your considered attention.