Reporters Without Borders today denounced a US federal judge's order to jail Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper for contempt of court for refusing to reveal his sources. The order is suspended pending an appeal.
"Once again, the right not to reveal sources, which is the cornerstone of press freedom, is being threatened by a US court," it said. "Forcing journalists to disclose them undermines one of the key elements of investigative journalism, which is vital for democracy." It said it hoped the 6 August order would be struck down on appeal.
"Confidentiality of sources is a bone of contention between the media and the courts year after year," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "Jim Taricani, of the TV station WJAR-TV 10, was fined $1,000 a day on 16 March as long as he refused to reveal his sources, and last year five journalists were threatened with imprisonment. Freelance reporter Vanessa Leggett spent 168 days in jail in 2001 and 2002 for the same reason."
"The United States is a member of the Organisation of American States and is thus supposed to respect the principles laid down by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Principle 8 of its Declaration on Freedom of Expression says explicitly that 'every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential.'
First Amendment not valid
Federal Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered on 6 August the "confinement" of Time reporter Cooper for "contempt of court" after he refused to testify before a grand jury investigating the possibly illegal disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
The magazine, which is backing Cooper, was also ordered to pay $1,000 (820 euros) for every day Cooper refused to reveal his sources for the identity of Plame. The two rulings were immediately suspended pending appeal.
Cooper wrote in the magazine on 17 July last year that government officials had told the media who Plame was. This information was printed three days earlier by columnist Robert Novak in the daily Washington Post. The White House is thought to have named Mrs Plame to punish her husband, the US former ambassador to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, who had publicly contradicted information given by President Bush to justify invading Iraq.
Since revealing a CIA agent's name can be considered an act of treason, a criminal grand jury and a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, were appointed last December to investigate the disclosure.
Cooper and NBC TV presenter Tim Russert were summoned on 21 May to testify to the grand jury. They appealed against the order, saying that the right not to reveal sources was protected by the first amendment to the national constitution dealing with freedom of expression. The judge's ruling, made on 20 July but not announced until 9 August, rejected this, citing a 1972 Supreme Court ruling (Branzburg vs Hayes) that journalists cannot use the first amendment to avoid revealing their sources to a court. He ordered the two journalists to testify.
NBC says Russert has testified to special prosecutor Fitzgerald. Cooper's refusal has led to the "confinement" order.
The Washington Post said on 10 August that its reporter Walter Pincus had also been ordered to testify to the grand jury. His lawyer said an appeal had been lodged to obtain a suspension of the order.