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United States12 March 2008

Last-minute decision by appeal court suspends fines for journalist refusing to name sources

A federal appeal court in Washington DC yesterday suspended application of a contempt-of-court order by federal judge Reggie Walton that would have forced former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to begin paying heavy daily fines at midnight last night.

Under yesterday’s ruling, the order has been stayed pending the outcome of an appeal by her lawyers. Walton ordered her to pay 500 dollars a day in an attempt to make her to reveal her sources for stories in 2002 naming a former army scientist as a suspect in a series of anthrax attacks, and he banned anyone from paying the fines on her behalf.

The fines would have increased by stages to 5,000 dollars a day until 3 April when, if she still had not agreed to name her sources, Walton could have ordered her imprisonment.

“We are obviously relieved by this decision, although it has only suspended the penalties and has not overturned the substance of Judge Walton’s ruling concerning Toni Locy,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“Aside from Locy’s personal plight, what is at stake here is the ability of all journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources at the federal level,” the press freedom organisation added. “This is why we again urge the Senate to quickly approve the ‘shield law’ granting this right to journalists, which the House of Representatives already approved on 16 October.”

11.03.08 - Federal judge hounds reporter to make her reveal her sources

Reporters Without Borders condemns US federal judge Reggie Walton’s decision on 7 March in Washington DC to fine former USA Today reporter Toni Locy up to 5,000 dollars a day to make her reveal her sources for stories in 2003 naming a former army scientist as a suspect in a series of anthrax attacks.

The judge has forbidden her former newspaper or her family to pay the fines on her behalf. If she still has not identified her sources by 3 April, she could be sent to prison. Reporters Without Borders urges the Senate to quickly approve a “shield law” providing federal protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources which the House of Representatives passed in October.

“This is unfortunately not the first time that a federal court has tried to force journalists to name their sources,” the press freedom organisation said. “Some of Locy’s fellow journalists have already gone to prison for refusing to comply. This is why it is urgent that the Senate should quickly debate and approve the shield law recognising the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “We are outraged by the methods used by Judge Walton to try to impose his will on Locy. Banning a journalist from turning to her family or her former employer for support is tantamount to persecution.”

The judge’s 7 March decision upheld a contempt of court ruling issued on 19 February. It obliges Locy to begin paying fines of 500 dollars a day at midnight tonight (Washington time). After a week, the daily fine will increase to 1,000 dollars a day. After the second week, it will rise to 5,000 dollars a day. No one is allowed to help her pay the fines. If she still has not agreed to name her sources by 3 April, when another hearing is scheduled, the judge could order imprisonment. Toni Locy filed an emergency motion on 10 March.

The contempt of court order stems from a lawsuit brought by former army scientist Steven Hatfill in 2003 under the Privacy Act, in which he accuses the justice department of improperly telling journalists that he was a “person of interest” in the investigation into the mailing of packages containing anthrax that caused five deaths in 2001.

On 13 August 2007, Judge Walton ordered Locy and five other journalists - Allan Lengel of the Washington Post, Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek, James Stewart of CBS News and Brian Ross of ABC - to identify the government officials responsible for the leaks. Locy named two of her sources after obtaining their agreement. But Walton is insisting that she name all of her sources. Stewart, who has refused to reveal the identity of other sources, could also be held in contempt of court.

Senate approval of the shield law known as the “Free Flow of Information Act,” which would provide federal recognition for the right of journalists to protect their sources, would render Judge Walton’s order null and void. Already approved by the House of Representatives on 16 October and by the Senate judiciary committee, it has not yet come before the full Senate for a vote.

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem - Vermont), the head of the judiciary committee, and Senator Arlen Specter (Rep - Pennsylvania) sent a joint letter to the leaders of both parties on 7 March calling for a swift vote on the law. The confidentiality of journalists’ sources is recognised by 32 states and the District of Colombia.

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