The press freedom situation worsened in 2006 with the imprisonment of blogger and freelance journalist Josh Wolf. A Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera TV, Sami al-Haj, remained a prisoner at Guantanamo. With government support, federal courts continued to punish journalists for refusing to reveal their sources.
After the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for three months in 2005 for refusing to name her sources, 2006 saw a decline in press freedom in the country whose national constitution guarantees it (through its First Amendment). The federal supreme court declined once again on 5 June to rule on the right of journalists not to reveal their sources, thus continuing the contradiction that 33 US states, but not the federal government, allow them to.
A vote on a proposed federal “shield law” giving journalists this right has been delayed because of the 7 November congressional elections. The Bush administration, already criticised for its violations of civil liberties, must now work with a congress controlled by the opposition Democrats. Will it pass the Free Flow of Information Act, which has been stuck in congress since February 2005, before Bush leaves office in 2008?
Federal courts meanwhile continue to use the “national security” argument to punish journalists and more than a dozen cases involving protection of sources are under way, some of them nothing to do with national security. Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, of the San Francisco Chronicle, were ordered by a federal judge on 15 August to reveal their sources or face imprisonment. The journalists had reported in 2004 part of a grand jury’s findings about a firm (BALCO - Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) suspected of supplying top sports figures with drugs. The case is being appealed.
A blogger sent to prison
Blogger and freelance journalist Josh Wolf went to jail however. The 24-year-old Californian had filmed a demonstration at a G8 summit in 2005 during which a police vehicle was attacked and damaged. A federal judge ordered him to hand over his film and when he refused, he was sent to prison for a month in August 2006, then sent back to jail on 18 September by a federal appeal court, which refused to rehear the case on 16 November, meaning he will probably stay there until a grand jury finishes its investigation of the vehicle attack in July 2007. A California state appeal court on 26 May allowed bloggers the same right not to reveal sources enjoyed by journalists.
The New York Times, criticised by the Bush administration for revealing the government’s banking and phone surveillance activities, was once again a victim of the gap between state and federal law when the federal supreme court refused on 27 November to suspend a lower court ruling that the paper must hand over phone records of two reporters, including Miller. Further intelligence service leaks had led a federal court on 1 August to demand that she and a colleague, Philip Shenon, provide the names of their sources. The journalists had won a ruling in their favour from a New York judge in February 2005.
A fifth year in guantanamo
The worst press freedom case was that of Sudanese Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who has been imprisoned without charge at the US naval base at Guantanamo (Cuba) since 13 June 2002 and interrogated about 150 times to get him to confess supposed links between the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Al-Qaeda. During a rare contact with his British lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, who has himself been threatened by the base authorities, he spoke for the first time of killing himself.
The federal supreme court declared on 29 June that the military tribunals set up to try the base’s 400 prisoners were unconstitutional. Despite this small legal victory, the base is still largely banned to the media and four US journalists, from the daily Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer, were expelled from it on 14 June. A law allowing the prisoners to be tortured was passed on 17 October as one of the last acts of the outgoing congress.
US firms help censor the Internet
The government has respected the first amendment to the national constitution by not censoring the Internet in the US. However, US firms are helping repressive regimes in Tunisia and Burma to filter the Web and in China, US search-engines Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft (MSN) have agreed to censor search their results. A bill - the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) - was tabled in the House of Representatives to regulate the activities of these Internet giants, but is making little headway and its prospects are uncertain.
The principle of Internet neutrality was rejected by the Senate in June 2006. The principle is currently respected worldwide and means that telecom firms are not allowed to distinguish between individuals and organisations that provide an online service. A small blog and a big commercial website have a right to same level of service. Reporters Without Borders says that “defending Internet neutrality is defending freedom of expression.” If telecom operators are allowed to offer different levels of service according to the price paid by content providers, small online publications, especially blogs, will pushed into a cut-price service and be available at much slower speeds than commercial websites.
Good news came from the California state supreme court which ruled in November 2006, in a defamation case, that Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot be held responsible for the content their customers post online. This also applies to forum moderators and managers of blogs where libellous messages are posted. Only the authors of the messages can be prosecuted, the court said.