Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about a Washington DC federal judge’s decision on 13 August ordering five journalists to identify the government officials who told them that former government scientist Steven Hatfill was a suspect in a series of anthrax attacks in 2001.
Hatfill is suing the justice department under the Privacy Act for improperly disclosing his personal information and has subpoenaed the five journalists - Allan Lengel of the Washington Post, Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek, former USA Today reporter Toni Locy and James Stewart of CBS News - who reported that he was a suspect. They have all so far refused to name their sources.
“Judge Reggie Walton’s decision is worrying because it is one of a growing number of attacks in the United States on the principle of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Journalists have yet again been targeted in a lawsuit by persons who consider themselves to have been defamed by the government. In all these cases, the reporters were just doing their job of providing information on a matter of crucial public importance.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The judge should focus on the officials who provided the information. By calling into question the confidentiality of sources, he is undermining investigative journalism. The proposed federal ‘shield law’ that would protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, which was approved by the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives on 1 August, must now be quickly adopted by both House and Senate.”
Hatfill brought his suit against the justice department in 2003, accusing it of a “coordinated smear campaign.” He said federal officials had ruined his career prospects by telling reporters that the FBI regarded him as a “person of interest” in the investigation into the mailing of packages containing anthrax that caused five deaths in 2001.
When refusing to name their sources, the journalists said there had been about 100 instances when FBI and justice department officials had provided them with information about the investigation.
The judge refused a request from Hatfill’s lawyers to subpoena executives from the Washington Post, Newsweek, USA Today and CBS News but he warned that he would reconsider his position if the journalists did not comply, and that the news organisations could be fined.
He added that identifying the sources was “central” to Hatfill’s case and would be decisive in any future case in which someone tried to hold the government accountable for leaks condemned by the Privacy Act.
Hatfill won a libel suit against the New York Times in November 2006. In this case, the judge ruled that the newspaper could not use information from anonymous FBI sources as a basis for implicating Hatfill in the attacks. But he refused to fine the newspaper for not revealing its sources.