New York Times
November 10, 2004
Paging China! Help us! Urge the U.S. government to respect freedom of the press!
It does sound topsy-turvy, doesn't it? Generally, it's China and Zimbabwe that are throwing journalists in prison, while the U.S. denounces the repression over there.
But now similar abuses are about to unfold within the United States, part of an alarming new pattern of assault on American freedom of the press. In the last few months, three different U.S. federal judges, each appointed by President Ronald Reagan, have found a total of eight journalists in contempt of court for refusing to reveal confidential sources, and the first of them may go to prison before the year is out. Some of the rest may be in prison by spring.
The first reporter likely to go to jail is Jim Taricani, a television reporter for the NBC station in Providence, R.I. Mr. Taricani obtained and broadcast, completely legally, a videotape of a city official as he accepted an envelope full of cash.
U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres found Mr. Taricani in contempt for refusing to identify the person he got the videotape from, and the judge fined him $1,000 a day. That hasn't broken Mr. Taricani, so Judge Torres has set a hearing for Nov. 18 to decide whether to squeeze him further by throwing him in jail.
Then there's Patrick Fitzgerald, the overzealous special prosecutor who is the Inspector Javert of our age. Mr. Fitzgerald hasn't made any progress in punishing the White House officials believed to have leaked the identity of the C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame to Robert Novak. But Mr. Fitzgerald seems determined to imprison two reporters who committed no crime, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time, because they won't blab about confidential sources.
Federal District Judge Thomas Hogan is threatening to send them to prison; a hearing is set for Dec. 8. As for Mr. Novak, he is in no apparent jeopardy, for reasons that remain unclear.
Then there's a third case, a civil suit between the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee and the government. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson held five reporters who are not even parties to the suit in contempt for refusing to reveal confidential sources.
In yet another case, the Justice Department is backing a prosecutor's effort to get a record of telephone calls made by two New York Times reporters - uncovering all their confidential sources in the fall of 2001. Put all this together, and we're seeing a broad assault on freedom of the press that would appall us if it were happening in Kazakhstan.
Responsibility lies primarily with the judges rather than with the Bush administration, except for the demand for phone records and for the appointment of Inspector Javert as special prosecutor. But it's probably not a coincidence that we're seeing an offensive against press freedoms during an administration that has a Brezhnevian fondness for secrecy.
We journalists are in this mess partly because we're widely seen as arrogant and biased, and we need to wrestle seriously with those issues. But when reporters face jail for doing their jobs, the ultimate victim is the free flow of information, the circulatory system of any democracy.
The Chinese government recently arrested Zhao Yan, a research assistant for The New York Times in Beijing, and the Bush administration has been very helpful about protesting the case. Maybe Colin Powell can work out a deal: the Chinese government will stop imprisoning journalists if the U.S. government will do the same.
Protecting confidential sources has been a sacred ethical precept in publishing ever since John Twyn was arrested in 1663 for printing a book that offended the king. Twyn refused to reveal the name of the book's author, so he was publicly castrated and disemboweled, and his limbs severed from his body. Each piece of his body was nailed to a London gate or bridge.
So, on the bright side, we have evidently progressed.
In May, Iran's secret police detained me in Tehran and demanded that I identify a revolutionary guard I had quoted as saying "to hell with the mullahs." My interrogators threatened to imprison me unless I revealed my source. But after a standoff, the Iranian goons let me go. Imprisoning Western journalists for protecting their sources was too medieval, even for them. Let's hope the U.S. judicial system shows the same restraint as those Iranian thugs.