As freelance video journalist and blogger Josh Wolf spent his 171st day in a federal prison in Dublin, California, Reporters Without Borders today reiterated its call for this 24-year-old blogger’s release and appealed again to the US congress to give federal recognition to the right of journalists to protect their sources.
This is one of the longest periods ever spent by an American journalist in a prison in their own country in connection with their work. Another freelance journalist, Vanessa Leggett, spent 168 days behind bars - from July 2001 to January 2002 - for similar reasons.
“Like Leggett, who was jailed for refusing to name her sources to federal judicial officials, Wolf is being held on a federal judge’s orders for refusing to surrender his unedited video files,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This is scandalous on two counts - the principle at stake and the length of time in prison - and speaks to a disturbing deterioration in press freedom in the United States.”
The organisation added: “Other journalists are currently risking imprisonment for similar reasons. Congress cannot remain silent any longer on the key question of professional secrecy, which is accorded to journalists in 33 states of the union. We reiterate our call for a federal ‘shield law’ and for the rapid release of Wolf, whose work had no bearing on national security, like Leggett’s.”
Wolf’s case goes back to 2005, when he filmed a protest in San Francisco against a G8 summit.
After refusing to comply with a federal subpoena to hand over his unedited video to a grand jury investigation into an alleged attack on a police car during the demonstration, he was found in contempt of court and was initially imprisoned from 1 August to 1 September 2006. He was sent back to Dublin prison on 20 September after judges rejected an appeal, and has been there ever since. The two spells combined currently add up to 171 days in prison.
A federal court rejected his lawyers’ last request for release on 30 January. This means he will remain in jail until he complies with the subpoena or until the term of the grand jury investigation expires. According to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, it was originally set to expire in July of this year, but could now be extended to January 2008. Under federal law, a person cannot spend more than 18 months in prison for contempt of court.
Leggett was jailed on the orders of a federal court in Houston, Texas, on 20 July 2001 for refusing to testify about her research into the 1997 murder of a Texan millionaire’s wife, about which was planning to write a book. Leggett had interviewed the victim’s brother-in-law, who was a suspect, before he committed suicide. She was released on 4 January 2002 after 168 days in prison.
Readiness to resort to imprisonment in this kind of case increased alarmingly after 9/11, with “national security” often serving as grounds for finding journalists in contempt when they refused to name their sources. Then New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent three and a half months in prison, from 6 July to 29 September 2005, for refusing to give her sources in the leaking of a CIA agent’s identity, which was blamed on the White House.
San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada are currently under threat of imprisonment by a federal judge for refusing to reveal their sources for leaks about an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes - a case that could not be further removed from national security. Their appeal is due to be heard on 5 March.
Aside from Wolf, the US authorities are currently holding Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba). Al-Haj has been detained without charge since 13 June 2002 (see release of 10 January 2007).