Joe Garofoli / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-01-05 23:01:01
SAN FRANCISCO (January 5, 2007) — The questions from the civilian spokesman at Fort Lewis started sounding suspicious to Sarah Olson. He had called to ask the Oakland freelance journalist about the accuracy of quotes in her story about Lt. Ehren Watada, which had appeared on the liberal Web site Truthout.org.
As the telephone conversation progressed, Olson realized that the military was using her to fortify its case against Watada, whom it was prosecuting as the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq and who had spoken candidly to Olson. While Watada faces a court-martial next month for conduct unbecoming an officer, the US military pursues Olson.
Last month, military prosecutors subpoenaed the 31-year-old writer and radio journalist, asking her to appear at his court-martial, scheduled to begin next month, to verify what Watada said. If Olson doesn’t testify, she faces six months in jail or a $500 fine and a felony charge for a story she was paid $300 to write.
It isn’t uncommon for journalists to appear in civil and criminal court to answer what military prosecutors are asking Olson: Is your reporting accurate? A spokesman at Fort Lewis, in Washington state, where Watada’s pretrial proceedings began Thursday, said that prosecutors would “probably be OK” with her answering in an affidavit.
But Olson doesn’t want to be part of a legal action that she believes limits someone’s free speech.
She came to journalism six years ago through a media reform-activism channel, hoping to create more places for dissenting or seldom-heard voices, not fewer. Although she paused several times during an interview this week at an Oakland cafe seeking reassurance that the story would not paint her as “some sort of martyr,” she is sure of the principle in which she roots her case.
“Journalists should not be asked to participate in the prosecution of political speech,” Olson said. “Dragging a journalist into court like this … really damages the barrier between press and government. When speech is the crime, the journalist really can be the investigative arm, the eyes and ears of the government.”
Would she be as passionate about not testifying in court if she had been reporting the views of, say, a Nazi? Yes, Olson said. “I’m kind of hard core about the First Amendment.”
Although Olson is not the only journalist whom federal officials are trying to coerce information from, some First Amendment advocates and military justice experts are somewhat baffled as to why prosecutors continue to chase her. Military officials aren’t asking her to turn over her notes or unpublished material. And it’s not as though a 30-second Google search couldn’t provide prosecutors with an iPod-full of audio and video of Watada’s numerous anti-war statements since his first news conference in June.
She is going into a military court, where free speech hasn’t traditionally had the same protections as in the civilian world. If Watada were a civilian and said, “The war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law,” as he did in his June news conference, he wouldn’t be facing six years in a military prison for conduct unbecoming to an officer and for missing a troop movement.
Are they chasing a freelancer who doesn’t have the deep corporate pockets to fund a fight? Probably not, said Olson’s lawyer, David Greene, of the First Amendment Project. He noted that prosecutors also subpoenaed Gregg Kakesako, military affairs reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
While First Amendment advocates say it isn’t uncommon for journalists to testify in civil and some criminal cases about the accuracy of their reporting, military law expert Eugene Fidell said it is the first military case he’s heard of involving free speech issues.
“What I don’t understand is why they (prosecutors) can’t get this information digitally or from somewhere else,” said Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. He has been involved in military cases since 1969. “It is a really interesting case.”
But Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek said that even though Watada hasn’t been shy about stating his anti-war objections in news conferences, speeches and stories, “just having a news clipping or a videotape doesn’t fully meet the rules of evidence.”
Unlike the 10 prominent reporters expected to be subpoenaed this week in the high-profile CIA leak case involving top White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Olson isn’t backed by a major media corporation. She has a day job as a technical writer and is being represented pro bono by the First Amendment Project in Oakland.
In media circles, her case has not become a rallying point for a federal shield law, as has that of Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who face jail time for refusing to reveal who leaked them confidential grand jury testimony about elite athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
And since Olson isn’t being asked to reveal unpublished work, her case differs from that of Josh Wolf, the San Francisco journalist who has spent four months in prison for refusing to give prosecutors outtakes of videos he took at a protest last year.
Still, her case is starting to draw attention.
“I’m always concerned when a reporter is subpoenaed to tell what they know,” said Peter Scheer, of the California First Amendment Coalition. “But I’m least concerned when they are asked to verify something that has appeared in a story.”
Olson doesn’t have a problem with journalists testifying in court. She doesn’t want journalists to be coerced to testify in cases that could limit free speech. “What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press,” Olson wrote in a recent commentary, “than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?”
It’s a stance that has evolved along with Olson’s interest in journalism. The New Hampshire native came to the Bay Area eight years ago “totally randomly,” she said, joining a couple of friends here after majoring in women’s studies at Simmons College in Boston.
After a few temp jobs, she gravitated to the media reform community and its focus on how media consolidations limit the number of voices in the marketplace.
She got her start five years ago at the low-power pirate radio station San Francisco Liberation Radio and worked her way up to become a regular contributor to national progressive radio outlets like Pacifica Radio and Free Speech Radio.
What drives Olson is telling the stories of dissenters and those outside the mainstream who don’t get traditional press attention. She has primarily covered the anti-war movement but also has done pieces on anti-abortion activists in Mississippi and anti-death-penalty activists. This week her story about doulas who assist pregnant women in prison is expected to air on KPFA-FM in Berkeley.
Olson’s 2,500-word piece about the clean-cut officer who called the war immoral and illegal appeared on June 7, the same day Watada called a news conference to announce his decision not to deploy. His story was picked up by several local outlets, and eventually a few major national outlets. She hasn’t written about the Watada case for the past couple of months since, as she put it, “I became part of the story.”
Olson has spent the months since that phone call emotionally preparing herself for the possibility of prison. Her boyfriend, parents and her grandfather, a military veteran, are supportive.
Granted, she probably wouldn’t be as willing to go to jail if, she said, “the story was about, say, Dick Cheney.” Not necessarily because Cheney and Watada don’t share the same political views, but because Cheney “has many other avenues to get out his message.”
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