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Reporters Committee condemns jailing of California reporter

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today condemned the jailing of California journalist Tim Crews, who began serving…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today condemned the jailing of California journalist Tim Crews, who began serving a five-day sentence Saturday for protecting the identity of confidential sources.

Crews, the editor and publisher of The Sacramento Valley Mirror, was cited for contempt by the Tehama County Superior Court when he refused to identify confidential sources who gave him information about apparent illegal conduct by law enforcement officials in Tehama County. He is believed to be the first American journalist since 1996 to be jailed for failure to reveal confidential or unpublished information.

“This is exactly the type of fishing expedition that poses the greatest threat to journalistic independence,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “If courts allow journalists to be turned into agents or investigators for the prosecution or defense in criminal cases, the right of the media to collect and disseminate news to the public will be compromised. It is crucial to the newsgathering function that journalists remain, and that they be perceived to be, independent.”

The California Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to block the superior court’s contempt order, despite the existence of a state “shield law” that purports to provide journalists with protection from contempt sanctions if they refuse to disclose unpublished or confidential information.

The Reporters Committee is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters and news editors dedicated to protecting the First Amendment interests of the news media. It has provided research, guidance and representation in major press cases in state and federal courts, including in cases defining the scope of the reporter’s privilege. In 1997, the Reporters Committee published Agents of Discovery, a report on its nationwide, five-year study of the incidence and impact of subpoenas served on the news media.

According to data gathered for the Agents of Discovery report, the number of subpoenas served on members of the news media has been on the rise in recent years. These subpoenas interfere with the newsgathering process by eating up the time and financial resources of the members of the news media, some of whom, like Tim Crews, even find themselves facing jail time.

The Agents of Discovery report depends entirely on voluntary responses for data. Of the 597 news outlets that responded, 323 news outlets received at least one subpoena from the 2,725 total subpoenas served in 1997. Data for the same year also shows that 322 of those subpoenas were served in California. These subpoenas pose a serious threat to press freedom, and state shield laws are one of the most successful means that news organizations have for fighting burdensome subpoenas.