Reporters Without Borders today welcomed federal judge Jeffrey White’s decision on 1 March to cancel contempt of court findings and sanctions against San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada for refusing to reveal their sources for leaks in 2004 about an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes. They had been found in contempt of court in 2005 and faced up to 18 months in prison.
Their lawyers asked the judge to withdraw the proceedings against their clients after Troy Ellerman, a lawyer representing athletes accused of doping, admitted to being the source of the leak and said he would plead guilty to contempt of court, obstructing justice and filing a false statement.
Reporters Without Borders does not however regard the decision as a legal victory for the press, as federal legislation still does not recognise the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Californian video journalist and blogger Josh Wolf, 24 has been in prison since 18 September for refusing to surrender unpublished video footage to a federal grand jury.
15.02.07 - Two journalists should avoid prison in sources case to "relief but no satisfaction"
Reporters Without Borders voiced relief that Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, of the daily San Francisco Chronicle, threatened with imprisonment by a federal court for refusing to reveal their source of information in a sports drugs scandal, would not after all go to jail.
But the worldwide press freedom organisation said this conclusion did not resolve the root of the problem since the source had effectively turned himself in and pleaded guilty.
“If the lawyer Troy Ellerman had not admitted to giving information to Williams and Fainaru-Wada, the prison sentence imposed in the lower court for “contempt of court” would likely have been upheld on appeal on 7 March,” the organisation said. “This is a happy outcome for the journalists but is in no way a victory for press freedom and protection of sources”.
Williams and Fainaru-Wada reported in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 on a federal grand jury investigation into drug-taking in the sports world, implicating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO). The journalists had obtained a copy of testimony by three baseball players and one athlete accused of taking steroids allegedly provided by BALCO.
Ordered to reveal the source of the investigation leak, the two journalists cited the right to protect their sources, which is recognised in 33 states, but not at federal level. On 15 August, federal judge Jeffrey White sentenced them both to 18 months in prison for “contempt of court”, the maximum penalty. Their lawyers immediately appealed.
Their appeal was frequently adjourned but finally set for 7 March 2007. In the interval, on 14 February, Troy Ellerman, one of the a lawyers for the accused sports figures, admitted that he had given the journalists his clients’ statements and said he would plead guilty to “contempt of court”, “obstructing justice” and “breaking an oath”, offences considered federal crimes. Ellerman faces two years in prison and a 250,000-dollar fine, if the judge accepts the deal.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, on 19 January had pleaded the case of the two journalists in a letter to the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, repeating her support for a federal law guaranteeing journalists the right to protect their sources.
Reporters Without Borders said Nancy Pelosi’s action in taking up the case of the two journalists with the Department of Justice and voicing support for a federal “shield law” allowing protection of sources meant that the case had in one respect marked a major step forward, in the direction sought by the organisation.