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United States20 November 2006

Judge finds against New York Times in anthrax case but rules against a fine

A federal judge in Virginia found against the New York Times in a case in which it was sued for defamation by former military scientist Stephen J. Hatfill, on 17 November 2006. The judge ruled that the daily could not rely on information provided by confidential FBI sources to accuse the scientist of involvement in a series of anthrax parcel bomb attacks which caused five deaths in 2001. However the judge rejected a demand from the plaintiff, who was calling for the daily to be fined 25,000 dollars a day, as long as its reporter Nicholas Kristof refused to name his sources of information.

16.11.06 - Anthrax case : The New York Times refuses to reveal one of its journalists’ sources and risks being fined

Reporters Without Borders hopes that the federal court will show proof of mercy on November 17, 2006, when it makes it ruling about the request for sanctions on The New York Times, after one of his reporters, Nicholas Kristof, refused to reveal his sources of information to the court. Kristof and The New York Times are being sued for "defamation" by a U.S. Army former bioterrorism expert, Stephen J. Hatfill.

“The lawsuit initiated by Stephen J. Hatfill concerns The New York Times, and do not engage the journalist’s personal liability. Nicholas Kristof therefore cannot be given a jail term, but the "professional secret" issue remains fully unresolved. Were the Times sanctionned, this would once again place freedom of the press in jeopardy. We have just asked the new members of Congress to adopt a federal "shield law" that would guarantee journalists the privilege of source confidentiality. What is more, we hope that the federal judge’s decision will be worthy of this critical issue for press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders stated.

On November 17, 2006, a federal district court in Virginia will decide whether Hatfill will be granted his request for sanctions on The New York Times. Sanctions primarily entails the imposition of fines or restrictions on the evidence that The New York Times can present. On November 2, the same court had upheld the first instance decision handed down by a federal magistrate in Virginia ten days earlier, obliging the journalist to name three of his informants.

Nicholas Kristof had devoted a series of articles on anthrax parcel bombs attacks, which had caused five deaths in 2001. Citing FBI sources, the journalist had mentioned Stephen J. Hatfill, a physician, and a U.S. Army former expert in bioterrorism, as one of the rare people likely to have access to anthrax and to know how to use it. In 2004, the doctor initiated a lawsuit for defamation against the Times. After the case was dismissed on the motion by the newspaper, Stephen J. Hatfill had won his case on appeal. After being brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, which had refused to make a ruling, the matter finally came back before a federal court this year.

Since both parties’ points of origin are in two different states (New York, for the daily, and Virginia for the plaintiff), the federal court ruled that the laws of the state of Virginia would apply, as much as Stephen J. Hatfill had filed the lawsuit in the latter state. Under the case law of the Supreme Court of Virginia, a journalist benefits from the qualified privilege of source confidentiality but can be legally compelled to name his (her) informants in certain cases. It is on the basis of this restriction that the judge has ordered Nicholas Kristof to reveal his. Two of the three informants gave the journalist permission to divulge their names.

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