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United States28 November 2006

New York Times forced to hand over phone records in blow to confidentiality of sources

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep regret today at yesterday’s refusal by the US supreme court to stay implementation of a federal court ruling requiring the New York Times to surrender the phone records of two of its journalists. The organisation reiterated its appeal to congress to pass a federal shield law that would protect journalists’ sources.

“The supreme court’s decision is another setback for the confidentiality of sources,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The courts and the federal government can always use national security as an argument to force journalists to hand over their phone records, although it is hard to see how respect for professional secrecy would threaten US internal security in this case.”

The press freedom organisation added: “This decision is unfair and dangerous, and we have no illusions about the outcome of the appeal the New York Times plans to address to the supreme court on the substance of this case. It is therefore vital that the congress that was elected on 7 November should make room on its agenda for a vote on a law giving federal protection for the confidentiality of sources.”

Yesterday’s ruling concerns information obtained by New York Times reporters Judith Miller and Philip Shenon shortly after 9/11 about Islamic charities suspected by the FBI of links with terrorism. After Miller and Shenon learned that the government planned to freeze the charities’ assets and contacted them for a comment, the justice department began an investigation to determine the source of the leak.

Citing New York state legislation and the US constitution’s first amendment, New York judge Robert W. Sweet ruled in favour of the two journalists on 24 February 2005. Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald referred the case to a federal court a year later.

The Manhattan federal appeal court ruled on 1 August of this year that the first amendment does not protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and ordered the New York Times to hand over the phone records to the grand jury that is investigating the leaks. The newspaper thereupon asked the supreme court to stay implementation of this order, finally receiving a rebuff yesterday.

Miller spent 12 weeks in prison, from 6 July to 29 September 2005, for refusing to name her sources in a separate case. She has since left the New York Times.

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