Attacks on the Press 2004: United States

United States

In 2004, U.S. prosecutors and judges showed a new and alarming willingness to compel reporters to reveal confidential sources. Prosecutors in several high-profile cases insisted that journalists name their sources, and judges backed up the demands by ordering reporters to testify or face fines and imprisonment.

Jim Taricani of the NBC-affiliated WJAR-TV station in Providence, R.I., was held in contempt for refusing to reveal who leaked a government surveillance tape to him. Chief U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres fined Taricani $85,000 then sentenced him to six months of house arrest and barred him from working, speaking to the press, and using the Internet.

CPJ denounced the sentence, saying that it sent a terrible message to the rest of the world. Officials in Venezuela, for instance, were quick to cite the ruling when they were criticized in December for adopting a restrictive new media law. Other, similar cases in 2004 had already prompted international journalists to question whether the United States was backing away from the guarantees of free speech in the U.S. Constitution.

Several reporters were targeted in a federal probe into which government officials leaked the name of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing two unnamed Bush administration officials, identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent in a July 2003 piece. It is potentially illegal for government officials to willfully disclose the identity of an undercover CIA agent, and Attorney General John Ashcroft named a special prosecutor to investigate the source of the leak.

However, the investigation, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, took aim at several reporters who were not involved in the story in question. At year’s end, it appeared more likely that those reporters would go to jail before the government officials who may have violated the law.

Novak’s column came eight days after Plame’s husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times challenging the Bush administration over its allegations regarding Iraq’s weapons programs. Other reports surfaced later with Plame’s identity, most suggesting that administration officials had leaked the name in retaliation against Wilson.

Wielding subpoenas, Fitzgerald pursued at least five journalists in the CIA case. Some agreed to give limited testimony after one source, vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, waived confidentiality, but Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller were held in contempt after they refused to testify. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered that each be imprisoned for up to 18 months and pay a daily $1,000 fine. Time was also held in contempt for refusing to hand over documents. Miller, Cooper, and Time filed a joint appeal, which was heard by a federal appellate court in December. The appeal was pending at year’s end, and the sentences were stayed.

The same prosecutor also issued subpoenas for the phone records of two New York Times reporters, including Miller, in an unrelated case involving a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raid on an Islamic charity in Illinois.

Still more journalists were held in contempt in a civil lawsuit in which a scientist formerly employed at a U.S. government laboratory, Wen Ho Lee, alleged that government officials illegally leaked his confidential personnel files. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., imposed daily fines of $500 against H. Josef Hebert of The Associated Press, James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, and Pierre Thomas of CNN. The ruling was appealed.

Taken together, press groups say, the cases represent the greatest assault on source confidentiality in the United States in decades. The U.S.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press repeatedly expressed alarm at the trend and collected thousands of signatures in protest. CPJ and other international press groups noted that the developments in the United States were bound to weaken press freedom in other countries, where reporters are often compelled to cooperate with government investigations.

While the confidentiality issue took center stage, journalists remain concerned about an unprecedented level of government secrecy imposed after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The administration continued to stiffen regulations and exert influence in regard to media issues in 2004.

Reversing long-standing government practice, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began enforcing stiffer visa regulations for foreign journalists. Reporters and photojournalists from 27 nations considered “friendly” to the United States must now obtain “information visas” for even short-term assignments of 90 days or less—even though other citizens from these same countries are eligible for a visa waiver for short-term visits. At least nine foreign journalists were detained and denied entry because they did not have visas. In addition, the department now requires all foreign visitors, including journalists, to leave the country and provide digital fingerprints to renew their visas.

The governing board of the U.S. government–funded Voice of America (VOA) tightened its control over programming, prompting 450 employees to sign a petition to Congress saying that political interference could endanger VOA’s credibility. The petitioners, representing about half of VOA’s employees, said the board was dismantling news services while creating new Middle East radio and television formats that would be open to political pressure. VOA also reassigned its award-winning news director, Andre de Nesnera. Many staffers believe the move came because de Nesnera had resisted efforts to put a pro-U.S. slant on VOA news, a charge that management denied.

The U.S. Marshals Service illegally erased audiotapes belonging to reporters for the AP and the Hattiesburg American who were recording an April public address by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a school in Hattiesburg, Miss. After the news organizations filed suit, the government conceded that the marshals’ action violated federal law and said the reporters and their employers were each entitled to $1,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

The U.S. Secret Service investigated the New York operations of IndyMedia, a loose consortium of independent journalists, after its Web site posted the names, addresses, and phone numbers of Republican Party convention delegates. But officials dropped the investigation after learning that the information came from publicly available sources. The FBI also investigated IndyMedia activists at the behest of Swiss law enforcement authorities after European IndyMedia sites posted a photograph of undercover Swiss police officers. During the same investigation, British authorities seized two U.K.-based IndyMedia Internet servers, shutting down 20 IndyMedia Web sites in 17 nations for five days.

In New York City, police arrested at least six journalists who were covering the Republican National Convention and related protests outside the convention hall at Madison Square Garden. They included Newsday photographer Moises Saman; AP photo aides Jeannette Warner and Tim Kulick; Narco News Web site reporter Jennifer Whitney; reporter Daniel Cashin of the radio program “Democracy Now!”; and a freelance camera–woman for Reuters, Eartha Melzer.