In Defense of Press Freedom

May 25th, 2006 - by admin

Members of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism – 2006-05-25 22:35:13

(May 23, 2006) — In 2005, 125 journalists were jailed worldwide. China led the list with 32. Cuba followed with 24. Other countries on the list include Iran, Tunisia, Burma and Uzbekistan.

These numbers, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization dedicated to the global defense of press freedom, are disturbing enough. Last summer, the United States joined that list of shame when Judith Miller of the New York Times was jailed for refusing to disclose a source. Now things may get worse.

We, members of the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, like to think our country, which presumably values a free press, is different, much different.

But in our country, too, the government has taken action to curb the power of the press. The latest assault involves two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle — Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, a part-time lecturer on our journalism faculty. They might go to jail, merely because they have done in-depth reporting and honorably refuse to hand over to the government the identity of their confidential sources.

This is not a case involving national security issues, where most clashes of government power and reporting have played out recently. As important as covering national security issues are to the press, such reporting represents an infinitesimal percentage of what journalists actually do.

This is a local case of national significance, and may decide whether reporters retain any rights to protect their confidential sources in federal court.

The reporting by Williams and Fainaru-Wada brought into the light of day widespread steroid use in baseball. From what we know, their reporting was diligent and dogged, meeting the highest standards of the field. They won significant prizes, including the George Polk Award, and published a well-received bestselling book, “Game of Shadows,” on steroid use. Their stories and the book prompted an important national conversation — and action by Major League Baseball — on the problem of steroids in sports.

Now, late in the game (the Balco grand jury that has been investigating steroid use appears to have ended its work), the U.S. Justice Department wishes to punish the reporters if they do not give up their sources.

Grand jury testimony is taken in secret. No reporters are ever present. It is illegal to leak transcripts from grand-jury proceedings, but it is not illegal for reporters to possess them. Judges and prosecutors understandably seek to preserve the sanctity of the grand jury. But that is not always possible. And the solution surely is not to destroy the underpinnings of another institution — free and independent journalism.

This is a case that goes to the heart of much of the investigative reporting done in our country — the type of reporting that exposes corruption and other wrongdoing. If the government prevails, much of this reporting could dry up, and we would all be the poorer for it.

Without anonymous sources — used judiciously — readers and viewers will only read and hear what the government and others in authority want. And that makes a mockery of a free press. We must underscore that journalists do not use anonymous sources indiscriminately. Some sources are whistle-blowers. And reporters subject these unnamed sources to the same protocols of verification and crosschecking that they would if they were named sources.

Journalists do know that not all sources act from pure motives. A reporter’s promise of confidentiality may in fact protect the malicious at times, or people who break the law. And journalists know they may make criminal investigations and prosecutions more difficult.

But law does protect the confidentiality of conversations between lawyers and their clients, clergy and their penitents, and between spouses for good reason. The alternative would be legal chaos. We believe the case of Williams and Fainaru-Wada is of paramount importance to journalists and the public. We urge journalists to rally in support of these two reporters. And we hope that the larger public will also rise to their defense.

This commentary was submitted by Joan Bieder, Robert Calo, Lydia Chavez, William Drummond, John Else, Tom Goldstein, Cynthia Gorney, Paul Grabowicz, Robert B. Gunnison, Neil Henry, Tom Leonard, Ken Light, Marcia Parker, Michael Pollan, Susan Rasky, Orville Schell and Carolyn Wakeman. All teach at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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