A 24-year-old blogger and video journalist was imprisoned yesterday in San Francisco for refusing to hand over video footage he took during an anti-capitalist protest in San Francisco last summer — setting yet another precedent for courts to follow in forcing journalists to bend to their will.
Josh Wolf, who writes and posts video on his own site as well for indymedia, a Bay Area political site, recently refused to testify before a grand jury investigating allegations that crimes were committed at the protest. One police officer received a fractured skull, and authorities are investigating whether someone attempted to torch a police car.
And there’s more. According to this morning’s New York Times, Wolf “could be imprisoned until next summer, when the grand jury term expires,” for refusing to hand over the raw footage, arguing that as a journalist, he had the right to shield his source material (in this case, the full, unedited footage.)
As has happened so many times over the past several years, the court wasn’t buying it, ruling that the grand jury “has a legitimate need” to see the raw footage.
This is the first incident that has crossed our radar of a blogger being imprisoned for refusing to give up source material. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, told the Times that “There is a tendency on the part of the prosecutors to go aggressively after people not perceived to have a big gun behind them…They are the most vulnerable links in the chain.”
At first blush that may appear to be true, but we’re not sure what the evidence might be to back that claim up. After all, didn’t Judy Miller, Matt Cooper and Tim Russert — remember his role in the Plame case? — have some pretty big guns behind them? Sure did. And just today, we see that Judy Miller and the Times lost another case, when a Federal Appeals Court ruled that a federal prosecutor will be allowed to review the telephone records of two Times reporters (the ubiquitous Miller and Philip Shenon) in order to identify their confidential sources in a case where, the government contends, “calls from the reporters tipped off [two Islamic] charities to impending raids and asset seizures” by the Feds.
But all that might be beside the point (other than that yesterday wasn’t exactly a banner day for journalists and their desire to keep sources, and source material, confidential.)
Despite not having the same financial or institutional backing as many other reporters, Wolf has done a good job in keeping his case in the public eye, and as a result has been receiving some help from big-name organizations. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed amicus briefs supporting Wolf, arguing that he enjoyed common law protection. The Society of Professional Journalists, according to Wolf’s blog, also contributed $1,000 to his defense fund.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, jumped into the fray today, saying in a press release, “We’re extremely concerned by the jailing of journalist Joshua Wolf and are monitoring developments closely…While we recognize that Wolf has legal protections not available to journalists in many other parts of the world, his jailing is alarming precisely because democratic countries rarely take such a drastic step.”
But all the press releases and letters of support don’t mean much when a 24 year-old kid is sitting in jail — and could remain there for the next 11 months — for refusing to surrender his source material. While on the face of it the case doesn’t carry the national import of the Plame investigation (and Wolf doesn’t have the friends in the chattering classes that Miller and Shenon had to trumpet their cause), don’t think that the Wolf case doesn’t set just as crucial as a precedent for future cases concerning journalists — including those who publish their journalism on a blog.