Pressing Issues

A look at US journalists under fire

| February 1, 2007

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was back in court this week, testifying in the trial of the source she spent 85 days in jail trying to protect -- Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Miller has been an ongoing flashpoint in the Valerie Plame affair -- a scandal that rocked the Bush administration, shredded what little credibility was left in argument for war with Iraq, and eventually landed Libby in court on perjury charges.

Miller's actions were parsed to death on daily editorial pages and in cable TV pundit duels back in 2005, and, now, Miller's recent court appearance has the talking heads spinning again. But while Miller may be the most high-profile journalist embattled by a government wary of the Fourth Estate, she is by no means the only one.

The case of freelance journalist Sarah Olson has been largely overlooked by mainstream outlets, but her recent victory is one worthy of big-type headlines. Prosecutors representing the US Army had tried to force Olson to testify in a court martial against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, whom she had interviewed shortly before he refused deployment to Iraq. On January 29, the US government dropped two of the charges against Watada, and withdrew their subpoena of Olson.

According to John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy, which campaigned on Olson's behalf, '[t]hese subpoenas were simply an effort to harass journalists.' Since the Army had many of Watada's statements already, the attempt to force Olson into testifying was little more than 'intimidation,' according to Stauber. 'It is clear that we must continue to demand that the separation between press and government be strong,' Olson said in a news release from the center, 'and that the press be a platform for all perspectives, regardless of their popularity with the current administration.'

In another case of apparent strong-arming tactics, Frank Koughan of Mother Jones reports that the Federal Aviation Administration is currently trying to fire a veteran safety inspector simply for talking to the press. Safety Inspector Mike Gonzales is accused of sneaking Koughan into a safety inspection without properly identifying him as a member of the press. Koughan calls these accusations 'provably false' and argues that the situation is an attempt to scare workers into not talking to the press.

As the government clamps down on journalists and their sources, new technologies have begun to test the limits of what constitutes the 'freedom of the press.' As of January 31, 2007, videographer and citizen journalist Josh Wolf will have spent 162 days in jail for refusing to surrender raw footage of a film showing protests of a G8 summit where property was damaged. The released version of the film is still widely available on the internet, but the Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ordered Wolf to turn over all of his footage from the protests. His lawyers have recently filed a new motion for his release, but his fate, along with the fate of many in the 'citizen journalism' movement, remains in doubt. 'The media is precariously perched on a precipice,' Wolf wrote from jail on his blog, 'and it is still anybody's guess where it is heading.'

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