A few stories lately about American reporters in trouble of various stripes.
First of all, we’ve got Josh Wolf, a freelance video journalist and blogger in the Bay Area. In July 2005, he filmed anti-G8 protests in San Francisco, and editted the footage together into a news report that he posted on his own website. The FBI took an interest and demanded that Wolf turn over the raw footage from the protest, claiming that they thought it showed an attack on a police car that took place during the protest. Wolf claimed that he did not film this event, and that anyway he was protected by a California law that says that reporters can protect their sources, and that they are not required to turn over notes or unpublished materials. The FBI is claiming that this is a federal case because the SFPD receives federal funds, and a SF police car was attacked. Wolf refused to turn over the tapes or testify before a grand jury, and was put in prison for contempt. Wolf was recently released on bail after over a month in jail.
To my surprise, mainstream reporters have been on Wolf’s side; they often take a disdainful tone towards amateur/indy/blogger journalists. I could easily have seen them try to distance themselves from Wolf, arguing that he’s not really one of “them.” But both the Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres have spoken out in his defense, with the SPJ even putting up $30,000 for Wolf’s bail. And this case does have wide potential repercussions for the press. If the federal government can really claim that their partial funding makes a local case federal, than every state shield law protecting journalists can easily be made null and void. Even worse, if the federal government can demand every reporter to turn over their notes or videos, then every journalist in the country is a de facto agent of law enforcement.
Obviously, Wolf will face another hearing at some point, but I haven’t found any info on that.
After his release, Wolf said that he has started developing a non-profit aimed at giving a public voice to people serving time in prison.
For more info, you can check the “Free Josh Wolf Wiki” which contains many articles and discussions about his case (not all supportive of Wolf, I’m surprised to say).
Next up, we’ve got reporter Greg Palast and his producer Matt Pascarella. In August, Palast and his news team filmed a report about Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. The story covered alleged corruption in the government’s planning for the disaster, and the inexplicable manner in which some New Orleans residents can’t return to their own homes, even though those homes weren’t damaged in the flood (watch the story or read the transcript here and here).
Now, Palast and Pascarella are facing “criminal complaints” from the Department of Homeland Security, for “filming a sensitive national security site owned by Exxon”, according to Palast’s website. I read the transcript and watched part of the report, and I didn’t see anything about Exxon. But law enforcement does overreact these days when people take photos of anything that might remotely be considered a terrorist target. Hell, in 2004 the city of New York proposed banning all photography in the subway system.
Needless to say, Palast is probably not hatching a terrorist attack on the United States.
And finally, we have a bizarre case in which a major corporation is spying on reporters. Hewlett-Packard hired Private investigators to find out who from the company’s board might be leaking info to the press. As part of their efforts to do this, the investigators tricked the cellphone companies of nine different reporters into giving out those reporters’ private phone records (as well as the phone records of one of the board members). For some reason, the press keeps referring to what the PIs did as “pretexting” when it seems more like lying and fraud to me (e.g. setting up a fake email account, pretending to be one of the journalists, and asking the journalist’s phone company to give them a copy of their phone bill).
Ironically, it sounds like the investigators were hired in hopes of preventing reporters from writing negative stories about the HP directors, but this story will keep the criticsm up for quite some time.