Josh Wolf, videographer and blogger, is now the journalist imprisoned longest in U.S. history for refusing to comply with a subpoena. He has been locked up in federal prison for close to six months. In July 2005, Wolf was covering a San Francisco protest against the G-8 Summit in Scotland (G-8 stands for the Group of Eight industrialized nations: Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the U.S., Japan, Italy and Canada). He posted video to the Web and sold some video to a local broadcast-news outlet. The authorities wanted him to turn over the original tapes and to testify. He refused.
In a recent court filing, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan says it’s only in Wolf’s “imagination that he is a journalist.”
The Society of Professional Journalists must be equally imaginative. Their Northern California chapter named Josh Wolf Journalist of the Year for 2006, and in March will give him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award. “Josh’s commitment to a free and unfettered press deserves profound respect,” SPJ National President Christine Tatum said.
The SPJ is also honoring San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who had faced prison for refusing to reveal who leaked grand-jury testimony about steroid use in baseball. On Thursday a lawyer pleaded guilty to leaking them secret grand jury documents from the BALCO steroids investigation, sparing the two reporters from jail time.
The problem for Wolf? Independence. He lacks the backing of a large media organization that could agitate to protect his rights. Wolf says there is “a divergence between how the government’s handled my situation as an independent journalist and how they’ve dealt with the corporate media, which have also been found in civil contempt.”
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press.” By forcing journalists to hand over tapes, notes and other material, and to testify, the government is making just such a law. Whistle-blowers and others in dangerous situations will no longer come forward to provide information to reporters if they think their names will be divulged. Journalists must be free to protect their sources and to report the truth if democracy is to function.
Wolf’s lawyer, Martin Garbus, one of the nation’s leading First Amendment attorneys, says the government has done an end run around California‘s shield law, which would have guaranteed Wolf protection. The authorities called on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, which moved the case to federal court, where no shield law exists (as reporters in the Valerie Plame case discovered).
The grand jury is investigating whether arson was attempted on a San Francisco police car, though the squad car was not damaged beyond a broken taillight. A police officer was injured after the squad car he was in was driven into the protest march (that case was investigated then dropped by the local district attorney); however, Wolf insists he was not videotaping either incident. What is clear is that by focusing on the alleged attempted arson of the car, the JTTF can assert jurisdiction, as federal anti-terrorism dollars, they say, paid for part of the car. With those legalistic jurisdictional acrobatics, Wolf is stripped of California shield-law protections, and remains locked up without charge until he turns over his tape and submits to the Bush administration inquisitors.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief in his support, pointing out how JTTFs across the country, under the guise of investigating “terrorism,” are targeting anti-war groups and compiling databases of law-abiding citizens critical of the administration.
Wolf, 24, is staying healthy in prison, reading a lot and learning from other inmates. He mails entries to be posted to his blog at joshwolf.net. Garbus expects him to remain in prison at least until the grand jury expires in July.
Freedom of the press means freeing journalists to do their work. Congress can ensure that by passing a federal shield law.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour.