Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage today at the running fine imposed on local reporter Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV10 in Providence, Rhode Island, for refusing to reveal his sources to a court.
Federal judge Ernest C. Torres on 16 March found Taricani to be "in contempt of court" and ordered him to pay 1,000 dollars a day until he revealed his sources. Payment of the fine has been delayed while Taricani appeals.
"Once again US justice is threatening the confidentiality of sources, which is the cornerstone of press freedom," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "Forcing journalists to identify their sources jeopardises the basis of investigative journalism, so essential to democracy," Ménard added.
The organisation urged the appeal court to reverse Judge Torres’ decision.
Taricani is refusing to reveal the identity of the person who gave him a videotape that was made in the course of an FBI undercover investigation. Screened on 1 February 2001, the tape shows a senior Providence city hall official accepting a bribe from an FBI informant. Both the official and mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr subsequently received prison sentences of more than five years for corruption.
A special investigation was ordered into the leak as the videotape was subject to a protective order issued by a federal court in August 2000 expressly forbidding lawyers, investigators or defendants from disseminating tapes connected with the case to "avoid compomising the ongoing grand jury investigation". Judge Torres said in October 2003 that the need to know Taricani’s source outweighed any harm that might be done to the right to the free flow of information.
Taricani told the local press he would not reveal his sources because he felt he was protected by the constitutional First Amendment right to free expression. His lawyer has appealed, thereby delaying execution of the fine imposed by Judge Torres.
The confidentiality of sources has repeatedly been a bone of contention between the courts and journalists in the United States.
A federal judge ordered five journalists with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and the TV network CNN to reveal their sources in October 2003. They were all covering the case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist who was accused of spying and later cleared. The judge ruled that Lee had a right to know which official was responsible for the leaks that led to the news reports that he was suspected of spying.
Journalist Vanessa Leggett was imprisoned for nearly six months for contempt of court in July 2001 after she refused to reveal to a Texas court the content of her interview with a crime suspect.