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United States19 December 2003

Judge urged to respect confidentiality of sources

The two New York Times reporters, James Risen and Jeff Gerth both refused to reveal their sources of information when they appeared before the court on 18 December. They thus failed to comply with an order made on 14 October by the federal judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson. The two journalists both invoked the First Amendment of the Constitution that protects press freedom, in not replying to some of the questions put to them. The three other journalists implicated by Wen Ho Lee are due to give their depositions at the start of January 2004.

Press release of 16.10.2003

Reporters Without Borders today called on a US federal judge to rescind the order he issued to five journalists on 14 October to reveal the confidential sources for their reports about accusations of espionage against a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico, Wen Ho Lee.

"Confidentiality of sources is the cornerstone of press freedom," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the US District Court in Washington. "Forcing journalists to name their sources threatens one of the bases of investigative journalism, an essential element of democracy" Ménard said.

The judge ordered the five journalists to disclose the names of their sources to the lawyer acting for Lee in a suit claiming damages from the energy and justice departments for revealing confidential information about him to the press in 1999.

The journalists are Jeff Gerth and James Risen of the New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert of the Associated Press and Pierre Thomas, who then worked for the TV network CNN.

The judge ruled that Lee has a right to know who in the administration was responsible for the leaks that resulted in news reports that he was suspected of spying on behalf of China. "It would be frivolous to assert... that the First Amendment, in the interest of securing news or otherwise, confers a license on either the reporter or his news sources to violate valid criminal laws," the judge said.

Lee spent nine months in prison after being indicted in 1999, but the charges were subsequently dropped and he was set free. The journalists concerned could be imprisoned for contempt of court if they refuse to comply with the judge’s orders. The New York Times and Associated Press are planning to appeal against the ruling, while the other news media have said they are studying the judge’s decision.

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