New York, August 7, 2001—In a letter sent today to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, CPJ called for the release of free-lance writer Vanessa Leggett, who has spent the last two weeks in a Texas jail after refusing to turn over research materials about a high-profile murder case to federal prosecutors.
CPJ believes that no journalist should be jailed for carrying out his or her work, a notion that has gained increasing global acceptance in recent years. Today, countries tend to experience intense international pressure when they imprison journalists. This stigma has helped greatly reduce the number of journalists in jail around the world—from a high of 185 in 1996 to 81 at the end of 2000, the lowest figure ever recorded by CPJ.
In the entire Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Chile, only three journalists are currently in jail because of their work, according to CPJ research: José Orlando González Bridón and Bernardo Arévalo Padrón in Cuba, and Vanessa Leggett in the United States.
As a matter of strategy and policy, CPJ concentrates its efforts on countries where journalists are most in need of international support and protection. As a result, we do not systematically monitor press freedom violations in the United States. CPJ only takes up a U.S. case when it involves a serious press freedom violation that is likely to have far-reaching effects on journalists here as well as abroad. Leggett’s unjust incarceration is such a case.
CPJ fully supports the amici curiae brief filed with the Appeals Court on July 30 by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists. The brief asks that the contempt order against Leggett be reversed. Arguing that the impact of this case is “real and immediate,” the brief asserts, “Reasonable journalists will fear that the use of similar subpoenas will allow prosecutors and civil litigants to use journalists as private investigators, thereby restricting the free flow of information to the public.”
Leggett’s prolonged incarceration— she has now been jailed for more than two weeks—sends a disquieting message to journalists in the United States and abroad. We believe that fewer journalists are incarcerated around the world today because of the opprobrium attached to governments that use jail, or the threat of jail, to suppress critical reporting. By detaining Vanessa Leggett, the U.S. government is effectively reducing the stigma associated with the jailing of journalists. This sends exactly the wrong signal to authoritarian governments, who may now show even less restraint in using state power to restrict press freedom.