At least ten reporters are facing jail or substantial fines for refusing to identify confidential sources in connection with three separate federal court cases. The number of journalists facing jail in the United States to protect their sources is unprecedented.
On Wednesday, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. at the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, D.C., to determine whether five reporters who have refused to identify confidential sources they used in reporting the Wen Ho Lee investigation will be held in contempt and possibly jailed. Lee, a former Energy Department scientist, has sued the government under the Privacy Act, alleging that someone in the Energy or Justice departments released confidential information from his personnel file. He wants the reporters to identify the source of the leaks. An additional reporter may be cited with contempt at a later date.
In addition, at least four reporters have been subpoenaed to testify in Washington, D.C., before a federal grand jury investigating the leak of the name of an undercover CIA operative, Valerie Plame. One reporter, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, has already been sentenced to jail for contempt of court, although that penalty has been stayed pending appeal.
In the third case, Jim Taricani, a reporter for WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., has been cited with contempt for refusing to obey a court order to reveal the confidential source who gave him a videotape of an undercover FBI investigation.
Reporters covering these disturbing stories will find three Web documents published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to be particularly useful.
“Agents of Discovery” is a survey documenting the incidence of subpoenas served on the news media in 2001. We collected data from print and broadcast news operations throughout the United States, hoping to demonstrate that journalists are targets of discovery, and that the negative impact of subpoenas on news gathering and dissemination was substantial. The 2003 report (compiling data from subpoenas in 2001) is our sixth. The report can be found at: https://www.rcfp.org/agents/foreword.html
“Paying the Price” is a list of the journalists who have been sanctioned with fines or jail time for refusing to testify since 1975. It can be found at: https://www.rcfp.org/jail.html
“The Reporters Privilege” is a complete compendium of information on the reporter’s privilege — the right not to be compelled to testify or disclose sources and information in court — in each state and federal circuit. Each section is arranged according to a standard outline, making it easy to compare the law in various states. It is found at: https://www.rcfp.org/privilege.
The subpoenaed reporters include:
Wen Ho Lee case: Jeff Gerth and James Risen of the New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, Josef Herbert of The Associated Press, Pierre Thomas of CNN (now of ABC), and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post.
Valerie Plame criminal investigation: Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, Judith Miller of the New York Times, and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. (Yes, Pincus is subpoenaed in both cases.) Additional subpoenas of reporters in connection with this investigation are possible.
Operation Plunder Dome investigation: Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV in Providence.
You can read more about these cases on the Reporters Committee Web site at www.rcfp.org.