U.S. Sends Wrong Message to the World

Original article can be found here.

Restrictive regimes around the world came out ahead when the U.S. Supreme Court announced this week that it would not hear an appeal by two journalists in a case involving the leak of a CIA officer’s name. The reporters, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times, face up to 18 months in jail for not revealing their confidential sources.

President George W. Bush has stressed 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. Many of the world’s despots have been using the case to their advantage.

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 charges that he defamed a local mayor. The government 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, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela recently complained when international observers criticized his country’s new media law, which severely restricts broadcast news coverage. They should complain instead, Chávez said, about “U.S. journalists that are being prosecuted by the government in Washington for not revealing their sources.”

The U.S. case has followed a winding path. The 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 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.

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.

In Nepal, the police demanded that Kishor Karki, editor 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 the editor of Jana Aastha, Kishor Shrestha, and other journalists from the weekly reveal sources for an article about an army general. These journalists refused to reveal their sources, but officers promised they’d be back. In Nepal that threat is not empty.

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

The American case is troubling because it follows several others in which U.S. prosecutors and judges demanded that journalists disclose sources. A television reporter served four months of home confinement for refusing to reveal a source; prosecutors are seeking records from two New York Times reporters; 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. CPJ documented a spike in the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when restrictive governments appropriated the Bush’s war rhetoric to clamp down on dissent.

They may have a similar opportunity today.

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