A Dark Day for Press Freedom

by Julian Davis on February 6, 2007

Unless released from ‘coercive confinement’ by the end of the day, Josh Wolf will become the longest incarcerated journalist jailed for contempt in United States history. Wolf is in prison for refusing to provide testimony and unpublished video footage to a federal grand jury investigating incidents that may have occurred at a 2005 political protest at which he was filming. Just why a federal grand jury was convened to investigate a broken taillight on an SFPD cruiser has never been fully illuminated. Many have characterized the investigation as a fishing expedition by an Administration determined to identify and threaten voices of dissent. What is evident is that despite protections supposedly afforded in the United States and California constitutions, protections designed to safeguard individual and journalistic rights, Josh Wolf finds himself the victim of an intrusive federal investigation.

The 24-year-old independent journalist has shown no signs of wavering in his refusal to comply with the federal grand jury that subpoenaed him one year ago. Wolf has refused on journalistic principle to comply and for his brave stand Americans owe Josh Wolf a great debt of gratitude. But he is only doing what any other self-respecting journalist would do and ultimately his case is not only about individual rights or the rights of journalists, but about the right and need of the public in a free society to be informed.

Investigative journalism and the free flow of information are no less important to the functioning of a healthy democracy than fair elections or the separation of powers. If journalists are unable to protect their sources of information, there can simply be no guarantee of press freedom. Who would share sensitive information with a journalist if that journalist could at anytime unwillingly become a tool of a law enforcement investigation and be forced to divulge confidential communications?

Without protections for journalists, without confidentiality, without privileged communication, the citizenry becomes less informed, and without information, the citizenry becomes powerless. There is a reason freedom of the press is enshrined in the United States constitution. The founders of this country and others have recognized the importance of press freedom to democracy. There is a statement from Thomas Jefferson that Josh Wolf likes to quote. Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” If only the US prosecutor and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were aware that in their overzealous pursuit of national security they are compromising the very values upon which this country was founded. We are living in an era when freedoms are disappearing in the very name of freedom.

On January 22nd attorneys for Wolf filed a Grumbles Motion to the effect that his continued imprisonment amounts to punishment not coercion since Wolf has proved to be incoercible. The motion for release from non-coercive confinement was denied by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup. Josh Wolf remains imprisoned despite the lone outstanding criminal case involving the protest having been dismissed by the San Francisco District Attorney and despite the resignation of Kevin Ryan, the United States Attorney who prosecuted him. It is not clear that any other action besides the attempted coercion of Josh Wolf is being taken by the federal grand jury in connection with the investigation. But, Wolf’s attorneys cannot even determine whether or not this is the case. Their request for discovery of the grand jury’s actions has also been denied.

Today Josh Wolf becomes the longest incarcerated journalist for contempt in U.S. history. He is exemplary of a new class of independent free-lance journalists who are changing the landscape of journalism with new media and new modes of communication. Wolf and those like him are no less deserving of protection that the mainstream media. With other reporters, such a Lance Williams, Mark Fainaru-Wada and until very recently Sarah Olson under threat of jail time, the importance of passing an inclusive and robust federal shield law has never been more apparent.

Representatives of the Free Josh Wolf Coalition were in Washington D.C. last week lobbying members of Congress to call for Wolf’s release. Their plea follows on the heels of recent requests by Speaker Pelosi, Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and Representatives Conyers and Davis that Attorney General Gonzales rescind subpoenas of San Francisco Chronicle writers Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. Their success or failure to conjure action from Congress on Wolf’s behalf will be a telling comment on the state of Democracy in America. Within days the Hearst Corporation was able rally at least five Representatives and Senators to the defense of the embattled Chronicle reporters.

Josh Wolf does not have a powerful media giant to pay his legal bills or exert influence in Congress but he does have the support of a formidable and ever-growing list of professional journalist organizations and first ammendment advocates including The National Press Club, The Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, Reporters Without Borders, the Newspaper Guild, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Center for Media and Democracy, the National Writers Union, and the First Amendment Project. If Congress will react to the Hearst Corporation and not this impressive coalition professionals and advocates, the thesis that our great American experiment in Democracy has devolved into little more than a thinly veiled Corporate Oligarchy will never have been so well supported.

Supporters of Josh Wolf will rally with a press conference scheduled for noon today on the front steps of San Francisco City Hall. Representatives of the independent and mainstream media as well as free press advocates and local government officials will continue the call for Wolf’s release.

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