U.S. sends wrong message to the world

This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune on July 2, 2005

Posted: June 30, 2005

Washington, June 30, 2005–Restrictive regimes around the world came out ahead. Many were already taking a cue from a U.S. case involving the leak of a CIA officer’s name when the Supreme Court announced this week that it would not hear an appeal by two journalists. The reporters, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times, face 18-month jail terms for not revealing their confidential sources.

U.S. President George W. Bush has raised the need for greater press freedom in Russia, the Middle East, and Asia, but the message from U.S. prosecutors and courts is being heard more clearly in repressive corners of the world.

Late last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists protested Cameroon’s imprisonment of Eric Wirkwa Tayu, publisher of a small private newspaper, Nso Voice, on criminal charges that he defamed a local mayor. The government led by President Paul Biya justified the detention in part by saying: “You are aware courts have decided in a number of countries that protection of free speech does not grant journalists, for instance, the privilege to refuse to divulge names of sources in all circumstances.”

Similarly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías recently complained when international observers criticized his country’s new media law, which severely restricts broadcast news coverage in the name of maintaining social order. They should complain instead, Chávez said, about “U.S. journalists that are being prosecuted by the government in Washington for not revealing their sources.”

This week’s U.S. case has followed a winding path. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing two unnamed “senior administration officials,” first revealed CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity in July 2003. Cooper wrote about the disclosure later; Miller conducted interviews but never wrote a story. A special prosecutor was appointed to determine whether government officials committed a crime by willfully disclosing the agent’s identity. No government official has been charged after two years of government investigation, most of which has focused on compelling reporters to identify confidential sources. By refusing to hear the journalists’ appeal, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s contempt ruling against Miller and Cooper.

Time said today that it strongly disagrees with the decision, but will provide documents it believes will obviate the need for Cooper to testify or go to jail.

In repressive countries, journalists are routinely compelled to reveal their sources. Last week alone, CPJ found that three governments on three continents had harassed or jailed journalists while pressuring them to reveal sources of sensitive information.

In Nepal, a police inspector demanded that editor Kishor Karki of the daily, Blast Time, reveal his sources for a report on clashes between the government and Maoist rebels. In a separate incident, two military officers insisted that editor Kishor Shrestha and other journalists of the weekly, Jana Aastha, reveal sources for an article about a Nepalese army general. These journalists refused to reveal their sources, but officers promised they’d be back. In Nepal, which has jailed dozens of journalists after a royal coup this year, that is not an empty threat.

In Serbia and Montenegro, two police officers visited the independent daily Danas, demanding that editor Grujica Spasovic and director Radivoj Cveticanin reveal their sources for a report identifying where indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic may be hiding.

And in Burundi, authorities released journalist Etienne Ndikuriyo after jailing him for more than a week for a story questioning President Domitien Ndayizeye’s health. He said that prison interrogators demanded that he reveal his sources, but that he refused. Ndikuriyo faces criminal charges of “violating the honor” of the president.

This week’s U.S. case is troubling because it comes amid several others in which U.S. prosecutors and judges demanded that journalists disclose sources or go to jail. Television reporter Jim Taricani served four months of home confinement for refusing to reveal a source; prosecutors are seeking records from two Times reporters in an effort to identify sources; several other reporters face contempt charges in a lawsuit involving a former U.S. government scientist.

Because the United States has set a high standard for press freedom, any perceived weakening in U.S. protections provides cover for authoritarian regimes to justify crackdowns on the press. CPJ documented a spike in the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when restrictive governments appropriated the Bush administration’s war rhetoric to clamp down on dissent.

They may have a similar opportunity today. U.S. prosecutors and judges are setting an unfortunate example for the rest of world.

Smyth is the Washington representative and journalist security coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.