ASJA Protests Jail Threats for Reporters

New York, October 14, 2004 – In a statement issued today, the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) condemned the recent spate of subpoenas aimed at forcing journalists to reveal their confidential sources and renewed the organization’s support for a federal reporters’ shield law similar to those enacted in New York and other states. The text of the statement is below.

A record number of American journalists have been threatened with jail in recent months, simply for trying to do their jobs. They have been subpoenaed to federal courts and then held in contempt when they refuse to violate the traditional practice of protecting their sources. The American Society of Journalists and Authors – the preeminent national organization of independent non-fiction writers – joins with other journalism groups and news organizations in condemning these actions.

For 100 years or more, reporters have broken important news stories by promising to guard the identity of some of their sources, particularly those sources who are vulnerable to government reprisal. Yet in August of this year, a federal judge cited five reporters for contempt when they refused to identify the confidential sources for their stories on the Wen Ho Lee spying case. More recently, another federal judge subpoenaed Matt Cooper, Tim Russert and Walter Pincus for their reporting on the outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA covert agent. The latest victim is Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who looked into the Plame case but did not write anything on it. It is not known whether Robert Novak, the columnist who broke the story of Plame’s identity, has been subpoenaed. ASJA is against the coercion of any journalist by threat and subpoena, but we cannot help but wonder why Justice Thomas F. Hogan has bypassed Novak in favor of going after those reporters who did not actually write the story.

If reporters fail to protect confidential sources, then vulnerable sources will stay silent and important stories will go untold. Even when a source has malicious motives or even breaks the law, as was the case of the still-unknown source who illegally revealed a covert agent’s identity, an ethical reporter must honor the promise of anonymity. In recognition of this, ASJA worked actively to promote the passage of Reporters’ Shield Laws in New York and other states, and we continue to support the passage of a similar law on the federal level. Until that happens, we urge federal judges and prosecutors to remember their own Justice Department internal guidelines on this issue. Written in 1980, the introduction to those guidelines reads as follows:

“Because freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news, the prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter’s responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues.”

Claire Safran
Chair, First Amendment Committee