[Homestead] info about gov - no longer free press ?
tonihawr at msn.com
Sun Oct 24 19:06:56 EDT 2004
Pressure on reporters begins to spook sources
By SETH SUTEL
NEW YORK, Oct. 24 - In the coming weeks, two reporters from major news organizations could be sent to jail for refusing to disclose confidential sources, and others could face fines. Another reporter is already being assessed a fine of $1,000 per day for refusing to say how he obtained a videotape of a former Providence, R.I. city hall official taking a bribe from an undercover FBI informant.
While it's still unclear whether the reporters from Time magazine and The New York Times will actually have to go behind bars to protect the identity of their sources, there are early signs that a widening pattern of legal pressure on reporters to break promises of confidentiality is having a chilling effect on people who want to share important information with the public but only on the condition that their names not be disclosed.
Clark Hoyt, the Washington editor of Knight Ridder, the second-largest newspaper company in the country, said that in the past few weeks he has seen two cases of people at first wishing to provide information for stories on a confidential basis, then backing out later for fear that they would be investigated or that their identity might be discovered from a subpoena of the reporter's phone records.
''I think there is no question that there is greater anxiety among sources about talking to journalists,'' Hoyt said.
The ability of reporters to get sensitive information confidentially received another challenge on Thursday when a federal judge approved an unusual request by bioterror expert Steven Hill to question journalists who published stories relating to the 2001 anthrax attacks.
As part of the unusual arrangement, the Justice Department will distribute waiver forms to members of its staff next month that would allow employees to release journalists from pledges of confidentiality. Hatfill's attorneys would then question reporters who wrote about the attacks about information that they may have received under a promise of confidentiality.
Hatfill is suing Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government officials who named him as a ''person of interest'' in the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others. Hatfill says his reputation has been ruined, and he is seeking damages.
Similar waivers of confidentiality pledges have already been used by prosecutors in a separate investigation into the disclosure of the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative. Investigators suspect that her name may have been revealed as an act of retribution by the government against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, after he wrote a newspaper opinion column criticizing President Bush's claim that <>Iraq had sought uranium in Niger.
Judith Miller from the Times and Matt Cooper from Time magazine were both found in contempt of court this month for declining to disclose confidential sources in that case, and appeals are pending. Some reporters in the case gave testimony after government officials released them from pledges of confidentiality.
There is already at least one instance in which a potential sources of information was spooked by the use of such waivers. Eve Burton, the general counsel for Hearst Corp., which owns 12 newspapers across the country, said a Hearst reporter had been told by a source recently that that person would never release the reporter from a pledge of confidentiality. ''My response back as a lawyer is that you ought to be sure that this is a story you're willing to go to jail for,'' Burton said.
The Plame investigation is just one of several recent examples of pressure on reporters to divulge confidential sources of information. This summer five reporters, including one from The Associated Press, were held in contempt of court in a civil case that the former nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee is bringing against the government. Fines were levied but the payments were suspended pending appeals.
In Rhode Island, reporter Jim Taricani for WJAR-TV was found in contempt of court for refusing to say how he obtained a videotape showing a Providence official taking a bribe. Former Providence Mayor Vincent ''Buddy'' Cianci Jr. is currently serving a five-year prison term after being convicted in 2002 of masterminding a scheme that took bribes in exchange for tax breaks, favors and jobs with the city.
Many of the recent legal actions against reporters are occurring on the federal level, where there is no clear law protecting journalists from revealing the identities of their confidential sources. Such ''shield'' laws exist at 31 states, however.
On Oct. 10, three days after Miller was found in contempt of court in the Plame case, the Times published an op-ed article by its publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Russell T. Lewis, CEO of The New York Times Co., calling for a federal ''shield'' law to protect reporters from attempts to compel them to reveal the identity of their sources.
''The press simply cannot perform its intended role if its sources of information - particularly information about the government - are cut off,'' Sulzberger and Lewis wrote. ''Yes, the press is far from perfect. We are human and make mistakes. But, the authors of our Constitution and its First Amendment understood all of that and for good reason prescribed that journalists should function as a 'fourth estate.' ''
On the Net:
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: http://www.rcfp.org<http://www.rcfp.org/>
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