A top US journalist has been jailed in a case that has concerned newsrooms across the nation.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine faced 120 days in prison for refusing to name their sources to an inquiry into the unmasking of a CIA agent.
Cooper has now said he will testify but Miller refused, in Wednesday’s climax to a case dubbed an “historic showdown” with the government.
Journalists and media observers have greeted the saga with anger and dismay.
“The case is particularly outrageous because… [the] prosecutor is training his guns on the wrong culprits,” Robert Kuttner wrote in the Boston Globe on Wednesday.
Many fear the case will have a chilling effect on investigative reporting at home and abroad.
But the story has also spurred soul-searching about the eroding credibility of US journalism following a series of scandals.
“Unless we can recover the public trust, our protests about reporters going to jail will come across as self-serving whining,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times in April.
The saga has prompted many journalists to question the political and legal climate in which they work.
Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists alleges that the case is part of a trend in which the government has sought to control the press’s ability to cover its behaviour.
“There have been concerted efforts, especially by the Bush administration, to reduce the availability of information and to tone down the aggressiveness with which the press pursues it,” he told the BBC News website.
“This is not just attributable to 9/11, but it appears to be a continuation of three decades of efforts,” he said.
No White House spokesperson was available to comment on the matter at the time of writing.
Some US lawyers for the news media say the legal climate has also turned chillier for those seeking to protect confidential sources.
Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres called the Supreme Court decision not to hear the journalists’ appeal “retrograde and freedom-curtailing”.
Some media lawyers say more subpoenas are being issued against reporters amid what one editorialist called a “contempt epidemic”.
But others are sceptical.
“I don’t buy that there is any increase in subpoenas,” New York lawyer Martin London told the New York Times.
“The Miller-Cooper case is very unusual; it has a lot of wrinkles that are just sort of extraordinary.
“But it’s perfectly reasonable in a post-9/11 world for the government to be concerned about the security of CIA information.”
Many journalists are concerned the case could prompt potential whistleblowers to withhold information from the media and restrict their role as society’s watchdog.
“Great justice has ensued from sources that had to remain anonymous, but who have offered information about grave misdeeds,” John Hughes wrote in the Christian Science Monitor.
But others fear the possible impact on countries where press freedoms are fragile.
“The use of fines and threats of jail to coerce… [the reporters] into revealing their sources gives comfort to repressive nations who seek to impose their will on their media,” warned Frank Smyth of the US Committee to Protect Journalists.
Many have met the perceived threat with calls for the passage of a federal shield law for journalists.
“It’s time for Congress to acknowledge that the cost of good journalism shouldn’t be prison,” the Washington Post says.
But some say it is also time to focus on regaining the public trust.
US journalism has been rocked by a series of scandals – from Jayson Blair’s fabricated stories in the New York Times to Newsweek’s retracted story on desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.
Earlier this year, a Pew Institute poll found 45% of Americans believe little or nothing that they read in newspapers. Twenty years ago, just 16% of readers expressed similar doubts.
“Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk,” Kristof wrote.
“It’s imperative that we respond… by working far more diligently to reconnect with the public.”
CIA LEAK CASE
July 2003: Valerie Plame’s work is revealed by conservative newspaper columnist Robert Novak
Sept 2003: Department of Justice launches probe into allegations that White House staff illegally blew her cover
Feb 2005: Appeals court rules Miller and Cooper must testify about their sources to inquiry
June 2005: Supreme Court refuses to take up the case
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