Judith Miller testified. So did Tim Russert. But Josh Wolf, a blogger and freelance videographer, won a partial victory yesterday by walking out of jail without having to appear before a grand jury. The San Francisco Chronicle has the details.
Wolf spent seven and a half months behind bars rather than turn over unused footage of an anarchists’ protest he had covered in July 2005 and answer prosecutors’ questions about violent incidents he had witnessed. In the end, he agreed to give up the footage in return for not having to testify. He also posted it on his Web site.
In a statement given in front of San Francisco City Hall and reposted on his blog, Wolf, 24, said in part that he considered not having to testify more important than turning over the video:
Contrary to popular opinion, this legal entanglement which has held me in Federal Prision for the past eight months, has never been about a videotape nor is the investigation about the alleged attempted arson of a San Francisco police vehicle as the government claims. While it is true that I was held in custody for refusing to surrender the tape and that the justification for making a federal case out of this was the police car, things are not always as they appear. The reality is that this investigation is far more pervasive and perverse than a superficial examination will reveal.
When I was subpoenaed in February of last year, I was not only ordered to provide my unedited footage, but to also submit to testimony and examination before the secretive grand jury. Although I feel that my unpublished material should be shielded from government demands, it was the testimony which I found to be the more egregious assault on my right and ethics as both a journalist and a citizen.
Wolf’s case is about the right of journalists — never fully recognized, and under increasing assault in recent years — to protect their confidential sources and unused notes, video footage and other materials from the prying eyes of prosecutors.
Wolf’s case was especially egregious, as this Online Journalism Review story explains, because the investigation was shifted from state court, where Wolf might have enjoyed the protection of California’s shield law, to federal court, where there is no shield law. The argument — that a San Francisco police cruiser damaged by protesters was paid for in part with federal anti-terrorism funds — is so weak as to be laughable.
With his partial victory yesterday, Wolf did not succeed in changing the law. But he showed that a journalist — even an independent blogger whose journalistic credentials are not clearly established — can generate enough publicity that the authorities will eventually back down.
In February, Amy Goodman interviewed Wolf for “Democracy Now!”