04 October, 2006

free press? why Josh Wolf sitting in prison matters

"We need those who provoke us so that we may be warned of the fate that our prejudices or ignorance or wishful thinking may hold in store for us."
William O. Douglas, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, 1962

Sarah Olson has a good summary of the background leading up to the (re-) jailing of journalist/blogger Josh Wolf on Sept. 22 for refusing to turn over his unedited videotape of a San Francisco WTO protest to a federal grand jury. She explains how prosecutors turned this into a 'federal case' on specious grounds - a police car that may have been damaged was bought with federal funds - in a sucessful ploy to bypass California's shield law. Currently incarcerated in a Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, CA, nestled between the bay area & central valley, the denial of his appeal will be considered in an en banc hearing by the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Failure there means he will be imprisoned until the end of the grand jury's term in July. His lawyer, Martin Grabus, distinguishes Wolf's situation from other recent cases:

Josh Wolf is being subpoenaed because the Anti-Terrorism Task Force believes he may have information about "anarchists" and other people who were at the demonstration. He’s already stated, and you will see, that there’s nothing in his tape in any way relating to the police car. The FBI and the government, having failed to be remarkably successful in going against Al Qaeda and related people, are now going after "terrorists" totally unrelated to the "September 11th problem." They are using the September 11th issues to throw a net over other people who would normally be out of the reach of any Grand Jury. That’s why the Josh Wolf situation is so pernicious.

The difference between Judith Miller, the San Francisco Barry Bonds writers and Josh is apparent.

The Barry Bonds writers had Grand Jury information as a result of a leak.

Judith Miller had information potentially relevant to an ongoing federal investigation of a federal crime.

Unfortunately, the probabilities are that he will wind up being the longest-jailed journalist in America.
Sara Olson explains why this is so important:

At first, many dismissed Wolf's case. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote an editorial supporting Wolf in his struggles, but seemed to capture a prevailing uneasiness with supporting a young, politically active, anarchist blogger. "Josh Wolf is an imperfect martyr for freedom of the press. The 24-year-old freelance journalist from San Francisco makes no pretense of being fair and balanced. He is a self-proclaimed anarchist. Advocacy, not objectivity, appears to be his driving motivation."
This (need it be said?) is a judgement based largely on his politics. The Chron can not afford to acknoweldge how the corporate media itself is a massive overwhelming "advocacy" project, determining what is or isn't even acceptable for the parameters of debate, prefering to hide behind & maintain the objectivity mask. Anyone who has heard Robert Fisk's "American officials say . . " routine, or read Norman Solomon's caricature of PBS' report on the crucifction of Jesus will understand. Olson continues:

. . . Wolf's case raises important first amendment issues regarding the role of journalists and protections for press, speech, and assembly. In the post-September 11th "war on terror," Wolf's case also raises important questions about precisely who and what constitutes a "terrorist," what types of protest and speech the government is prepared to allow, and what happens to journalists reporting on speech with which the government disagrees.

Wolf argued, as have many before him, that turning over unpublished, unedited material to the grand jury would make him an arm of the state prosecution. In his legal response to the subpoena, Wolf wrote, "In seeking my testimony and unpublished material, the federal government is turning me into their de-facto investigator. My journalistic activities will be blighted, and my reporter-subject relationship of trust with alleged anarchist protestors will be eviscerated."

To cooperate with a government prosecution in this way, the argument goes, chills the public's willingness to speak with journalists. Introducing fear of prosecution into the public's dealings with journalists impedes the free and fair functioning of the press. Journalists could not work if the public thought government prosecutors or censors were waiting, subpoenas a'ready, for the first sign of dissent or political subversion.

In a June 2006 blog entry, Wolf writes: "It goes against my journalistic ethics to provide the footage to the government, and I have every reason to believe that if I were to comply at that level, I would then be asked to identify various activists. It goes against every moral fiber in my body to sit back and out people for their political beliefs."

One of the most important and least discussed elements of this argument is that if the government succeeds in forcing journalists to testify against their sources, the debate about controversial issues will be limited to only one side - the government's. Impeding the public's access to journalists will ensure that only the government's version of reality will be reported. It will only impact the members of opposition parties or organizations. In essence, journalists will be reduced to reprinting government and corporate press releases, with opposing points of view utterly unrepresented. While debate about important issues should represent a panoply of voices and perspectives, the federal government's move to turn journalists into investigators threatens the very essence of knowledge and understanding in the United States.

Wolf's attorneys also argued that this grand jury is just one facet of a nation-wide investigation into dissident political voices. In a February 15th motion to quash the grand jury subpoena, Wolf's attorney wrote, "It is readily apparent that the FBI is engaged in an illegal, full field investigation of anarchists and anarchism." Further, they argued, Wolf had been subpoenaed in order to answer larger questions about anarchist activity, rather than narrowly defined questions about damage to a police car purchased in part with federal dollars.

To support this claim, Wolf's defense submitted documents from an FBI investigation of three alleged members of the Earth Liberation Front in Auburn, California. The documents detail a web of surveillance and investigation that ranges from New York City to California, from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Indiana. They indicate detailed knowledge of demonstrations and convergences, surveillance of public networking web sites, and detailed knowledge of some aspects of anarchist communities.

Grand jury investigations into what the federal government now unabashedly calls eco-terrorism have been convened up and down the Pacific coast, from San Francisco to Eugene to Olympia. Dozens of activists have been subpoenaed to testify about their own activities, or those of their friends and compatriots.

In addition, examples of police or government interference in the speech rights of political protesters abound. There are numerous and egregious reports of law enforcement harassment and surveillance including the infiltration of student peace activists groups, gathering files on Americans Friends Service Committee anti-war events, interrogating animal rights activists in their homes, sending undercover agents to anti-war meetings and demonstrations, and aggressively questioning Muslims and Arabs on the basis of religion or national origin.

It would be difficult to look at the coast-to-coast examples of surveillance and harassment without concluding the government is making some degree of effort to intimidate and frighten political activists into silence. And Wolf's attorneys contend the federal subpoena for their client's video is just another piece of this unconstitutional level of law enforcement harassment.

. . . it would be a mistake to look at press freedom only in terms of jailed reporters. While it would certainly seem that jailing reporters refusing to cooperate with state or federal investigations is on the rise, there is a wide variety of evidence suggesting press freedom is under attack.

In early August, a federal judge ruled that citizens receiving and reprinting classified information pertaining to national security could be prosecuted. Judge T.S. Ellis III wrote: "... both common sense and the relevant precedent point persuasively to the conclusion that the government can punish those outside of the government for the unauthorized receipt and deliberate retransmission of information relating to the national defense." Although the case in question pertained to employees of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee who were charged under the Espionage Act with receiving and retransmitting national defense information, many analysts fear the court's decision could be extended to journalists receiving information like the leaked Taguba report, detailing prisoner abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

The Bush administration is famously laconic with the press, failing to answer challenging questions and often retaliating against reporters who ask them. This administration has gone as far as planting faux reporters into the national press corps mix, and paying columnists to write favorable articles about pet government programs.

Further, the Bush administration has prohibited reporter access to various pieces of information that inform relevant national debates. An obvious example is the brouhaha erupting after the first photos of coffins containing American soldiers returning from Iraq were leaked to the press. But in a wide range of examples, the Bush administration has allowed the specter of "national security" to trump press freedom - and the public's right to know.
Listen to the words of this young man writing from jail the other day:

. . . I find my freedom curtailed significantly here in this Federal Detention Center; and, unfortunately, I am not the only one under the gun.

From the looks of things, it’s only just the beginning. A recent article in USA today (9/18/06) cited a statistic that left me terrified for our future. According to a survey of nearly 15,000 high school students, only 54% felt that "newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval."

No, that wasn’t a typo, friends, over 40% of our high school students feel that the press should need governmental approval to publish the news! Not the sort of thing one wants to read while sitting in jail asserting my constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, in Staten Island, a man named Javed Iqbal found himself held in federal prison with $250,000 bail for simply providing his community with television programming that he harvested off the 8 satellite dishes that decorated his backyard. You see, one of the stations available through Iqbal is Ai Manar, a station controlled by Hezbollah and therein considered a terrorist entity.

The disturbing worlds put forth by the likes of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley have swiftly become reality, and judging by the study in USA Today, half of our young people couldn’t care less. The time to wake up has long since passed — quit hitting snooze and hope it’s not too late. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the notion that you can’t make a difference — that’s just another form of cowardice. You can’t even fail if you don’t try, and you just might succeed.

The (mainstream) Society of Professional Journalists (N CA chapter) not only nominated him as "Journalist of the Year." but has also donated $30,000 to his legal defense fund, their largest grant ever.

"We have to make a stand someplace as the government attempts over and over to change the role of journalists as independent observers to arms of law enforcement," said SPJ President Dave Carlson . . . "If we allow this to happen the public will be hurt, our democracy will be hurt because people will be less inclined to cooperate with reporters . . . We will all end up less informed and less able to practice self-government." According to Olson, "The American Civil Liberties Union and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press both filed amicus briefs in Wolf's case. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution supporting Wolf's refusal to testify before the grand jury."

Do we really want to turn journalists & bloggers into police surveillance cameras? That, or be designated the Enemy? "On March 9, 2006, FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent G. Charles Rasner stated in a guest lecture at the University of Texas School of Law that Indymedia was on a "Terrorist Watch List" ( Cody Molica). The big "progressive" bloggers have been pretty quiet about this - my guess is it's that scary "a-" word - & seem to prefer to maintain a respectable distance.

Jailed & subpoenaed journalists: a historical timeline (1735 - 2006)


Blogger Man Eegee said...

Once upon a time, I thought about pursuing a journalism career but the department at my college was in the middle of imploding. True journalists are heroes because they deal with fact not opinions, and unfortunately the heroes are being locked up.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Cody Molica said...

Thanks for plugging my site www.codymolica.powersandmorrison.com I took that quote about indymedia being on a terrorist watch list right out of the court documents pertaining to Wolf. The irony is this, you quote Justice Douglas in the beginning, and last I checked Wolf's judge Alsup clerked for Douglas.

5:39 PM  

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