Sarah Olson, The Pentagon, And The First Amendment

Last month, military prosecutors subpoenaed Sarah Olson, a 31-year-old writer and radio journalist, asking her to appear at the court-martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. Lt. Watada said that he could not participate in the Iraq War because it was “manifestly illegal” and that his participation would make him a party to war crimes. He had spoken candidly to Olson, who had written about the case, and prosecutors have tried to conscript her into their effort to convict Lt. Watada, whose trial begins February 5.


Now, the Pentagon prosecutors are also trying to force testimony against Lt. Watada from Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako, who also wrote about the case; and freelance journalist Dahr Jamail and videographer Sari Gelzer, who had simply videotaped Lt. Watada’s speech at a Veterans for Peace convention 


Olson has refused to testify against Lt. Watada, for reasons she persuasively  explained in an Editor & Publisher op-ed Olson wrote, in which she said, among other things:


“Doesn’t it fly in the face of the First Amendment to compel a journalist to participate in a government prosecution against a source, particularly in matters related to personal political speech? It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion. Further, it is stunningly ironic that the Army seeks my testimony — the testimony of a journalist — in a case against free speech itself. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?”


A Los Angeles Times editorial got it right when it said of the Sarah Olson case:


“It’s egregious enough when U.S. attorneys subpoena journalists, which is happening at an alarmingly increasing rate (illustrating the need for a national shield law). But there is something especially chilling about the U.S. military reaching beyond its traditional authority to compel a non-military U.S. citizen engaged in news-gathering to testify in a military court, simply to bolster a court-martial case. There is no security interest at stake, and no matter of national urgencyIt’s time for the Army to back off.


A Defend the Press campaign against military intimidation and harassment of journalists that highlights the Sarah Olson case has just been launched by the admirable John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) together with Bob McChesney and the good folks at Free Press. Stauber reports on this campaign today on the website of CMD’s excellent P.R. Watch:


In the past 72 hours Defend the Press has been endorsed by a diversity of news media and public interest organizations from Free Press to the Organic Consumers Association, from Mother Jones to Mothering magazines. Some of these organizations have sent emails to their thousands of supporters urging support for the campaign. Others have posted banners at the top of their websites. The National Press Club issued a news release on behalf of Sarah Olson and other subpoenaed journalists, and endorsed Defend The Press. Scores of notables in the journalism, academic, and public interest communities have added their names, posting comments, writing letters and articles….


Read all of Stauber’s report (and find out what you can do to help) by clicking here.


I was more than happy to lend my name in support of Sarah Olson’s courageous and principled refusal to join in the prosecution effort to send Lt. Watada to jail, so I asked a number of my journalist and writer friends to join me in signing a statement against the military’s attempt to subpoena Olson and other journalists, and most of them — like sportswriter and HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, best-selling author John Berendt, and Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schnberg (hero of the movie “The Killing Fields,” based on his book about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges) — said yes. Schanberg wrote me:


Yes, Doug, please add my name to the appeal. Sarah Olson’s principled stand is a crucial one at a time when the mainstream press is bargaining away, in bigger and bigger chunks, the privacy of reporters’ notebooks, confidential conversations, e-mails, etc. ad infinitum. Her professional product has been published and is available to the government. As she says, reporters betray their role as fact-seekers for the public if they are forced — through threat of imprisonment — to become agents of a particular government’s agenda.


If you agree, find out what you can do by visiting the Defend the Press website. A good way to start: sign the petition demanding the military dismiss the subpoena against Sarah Olson, which you can do by clicking here. And Sarah, a penurious young independent journalist, needs money to help pay her legal defense against the military’s attempt to force her to testify — you can donate to the legal defense fund by clicking here. Remember, the trial begins on February 5 — and Sarah can use all the help she can get to fight the Pentagon’s First Amendment-shredding subpoena.



Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Jan. 27, 2007.



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