Media principles tested by war on terror
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK (Reuters) – As it wages war in the name ofdemocracy, the U.S. government stands accused by critics oferoding freedom of the press at home as journalists face jailfor principles they say are enshrined in the Constitution.
But with the media struggling to regain public confidenceafter a string of reporting scandals, journalists too are underpressure not to let their principles override security at atime when the United States has declared a “war on terrorism.”
Time magazine said this week it would hand over areporter’s notebooks to a grand jury despite that reporter’swillingness to go to jail to keep his promise to protect hissources.
Time’s Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller of the New YorkTimes have been held in contempt of court for refusing to namesources they spoke to about CIA operative Valerie Plame, whosename was revealed by a conservative columnist in 2003.
Time’s move was condemned by the International Federationof Journalists, which has 500,000 members in over 100countries, as a “profound betrayal” of principle.
“It’s open season on journalists — and by extension,information the government doesn’t want people to know,” TheSeattle Times wrote in an editorial.
Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedomof the Press, said the judiciary had become more aggressive indemanding information from journalists since the 9/11 attacks.
“We’re seeing more subpoenas in the federal courts inrecent months than we have in the last 35 years,” Dalglishsaid. “We’re seeing more and more secrets being kept by thefederal government since 9/11.”
That means reporters are ever more dependent onconfidential sources, even though their use has contributed attimes to falling public confidence in the media after scandalsinvolving shoddy reporting and plagiarism.
Rodney Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond LawSchool, said the views of the American public and media weregrowing further apart. “To most people it’s very hard to seewhy a journalist’s right to protect his sources would trumpnational security,” Smolla said.
CONFUSION OVER TIME CASE
The latest soul searching came after the Supreme Court letstand a ruling that Cooper and Miller should be held incontempt for refusing to reveal who they spoke to in connectionwith the Plame case. Cooper may avoid imprisonment but Millercould be jailed despite never writing about the conversationsin question.
A federal appeals court said this week four journalistscould be held in contempt for refusing to name sources in thecase of a nuclear scientist once suspected of espionage.
And in December, a Rhode Island reporter was sentenced tosix months of house arrest for refusing to name a source.
While media reaction to Time’s decision was mixed, withsome supporting its argument that journalists are not above thelaw, there were few people writing in support of jailing Millerand Cooper.
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said it was “overthe top.” “It’s a dangerous thing when in politics we end upwanting our enemies to go to jail,” he said during a discussionof the case on air on Thursday.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the casesset a bad example for the media in repressive countries.
“President Bush has raised the need for greater pressfreedom in Russia, the Middle East, and Asia, but the messagefrom U.S. prosecutors and courts is being heard more clearly inrepressive corners of the world,” the CPJ said.
But Bob Giles, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation forJournalism, said it was hard to see “a Bush fingerprint” on thecase of Cooper and Miller. They were caught up in theinvestigation by a special prosecutor into the alleged leak ofPlame’s identity by the Bush administration.
Plame’s diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, says the leak wasan attempt to discredit him after he had publicly disputed aclaim by Bush about Iraq’s attempts to secure illegal weapons.
Bush has said a journalist’s right to protect sources is a”difficult tightrope.”
“Look, I’m a First Amendment guy,” he said. “On the otherhand, there’s some information which could damage our abilityto collect information, and that’s where the real rub has beenso far from my perspective.”