Wolf unfortunately unshielded
Independent journalist Josh Wolf has been released from prison after spending over 225 days behind bars for not revealing his sources. Wolf spent more time in prison than any other journalist in U.S. history for protecting his sources.
Wolf was arrested after he refused to cooperate with a federal subpoena of video footage he shot at an anti-G8 protest in San Francisco.
“Essentially, what the government wants me to do, as we can tell, is to identify civil dissidents who were attending this march, who were in mask and clearly did not want to be identified,” Wolf told Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow! last February.
Currently, there are no federal laws that protect journalists’ sources. Because of this, Wolf, along with other journalists, have been unlawfully jailed.
According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “approximately 65 requests for media subpoenas [on the federal level] have been approved by the Attorney General since 2001.” Journalists deserve protection in federal courts just as they do in state courts—31 states currently have shield laws. It’s time the federal government steps up and passes shield laws to protect journalists across the nation.
California is one of the 31 states with shield laws, but the government contends that because the San Francisco police department gets federal funding, that any property belonging to San Francisco police is a federal defense, and federal courts do not acknowledge state shield laws. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Wolf’s footage was subpoenaed after a police officer was left in serious condition after an alleged injury sustained during the protest. However, Wolf maintains that he did not document the incident.
Michael Cabanatuan, president of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, said Wolf’s case should have been considered under state shield laws and that the government is just trying to deter journalists from keeping sources anonymous.
“I think it’s ludicrous that it fell under federal laws,” he said. “I think they want to get him. They want to put him in jail. They want to teach journalists—new media like Josh or traditional—a lesson. This clearly was a state case.”
Wolf offered to turn the footage over to the federal judge to determine whether there is any evidence on the tape. The US Attorney’s office said this action would not be appropriate considering there is “certain information that only the grand jury is privy to.”
“I don’t understand why the grand jury information can’t be then passed on to the judge,” said Wolf on DemocracyNow!. “All newsworthy material on the video was put out online the night of the incident, because I had no idea this was going to all bubble up when I was shooting the video that night and editing it down later on.”
Shield laws in California protect Wolf from revealing his sources. He told Goodman the government is just trying to find a way around his journalistic rights.
“This seems like an attempt to sort of circumvent the protections that California feels are due to journalists in order to prevent the situation that I’m currently dealing with.”
Recent proposed legislation for federal shield laws have been stagnant in Congress. The most recent was the “The Free Flow of Information Act of 2006″ which would have given journalists protection of confidential sources and information. Neither the House nor the Senate voted on the bill in the 109th Congress. There has been no talk on when the bill will be voted on in the new congress.
Many organizations called for Wolf’s release, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The First Amendment Project, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), National Press Club, and Northern California Media Workers Guild. According to the statement on the ACLU website on Josh’s case, the federal government is undermining Josh’s First Amendment rights.
“The ACLU contests the government’s argument that a journalist cannot invoke a First Amendment privilege when presented with a grand jury subpoena.”
Cabanatuan said the lack of federal shield laws weaken the journalist-source relationship and make it hard for journalists to obtain important information.
“It’s like a reporter giving up his notes; it’s something that isn’t done. If people can’t trust you with interviews, they’re not necessarily going to trust you with information you need to know.”
Wolf was finally released on February 5th after prosecutors came to an agreement. Federal prosecutors decided to drop their insistence that Wolf testify in front of a grand jury and identify the persons in his footage. In return, Wolf posted the unedited video footage on his website, gave a copy to prosecutors and claimed he knew nothing about the accusations of violence reported at the protest. In a statement to the Canter for Media and Democracy after his release, Josh said the decision did not weaken his resolve.
“The demand for my testimony before the grand jury was the true assault on my code of ethics and, as I have stated previously, there will be, and has been no compromise to this resolute principle.”
Josh Wolf served time in prison for practicing a fundamental journalistic right; his incarceration was unjust. To prevent other Josh Wolf-like situations and to strengthen journalistic rights nationwide, Congress needs to vote on and pass federal legislation on shield laws.
Bobby Smith is a freshman politics major who has placed his Josh Wolf Shrine right next to the Gandhi shrine. Email him at rsmith2[at]ithaca.edu.