Free Press

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Free Press

Simply stated, the US cannot have wars in the name of spreading freedom and democracy while simultaneously eroding the democracy we have at home. I can’t believe I am witnessing a person being sent to jail for doing their job. Nothing illegal, just reporting and promising to hold a confidential source in confidence.

Freedom is freedom. There are some instances in which freedom of speech doesn’t work such as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. But when doing one’s job as a reporter – a noble profession mind you, one that exposes corruption, and helps provide the substrate for democracy, how can you conceivably be arrested?

Yesterday, Judith Miller a reporter for the New York Times was sent to jail for not revealing her sources to a grand jury. We should have a national holiday in her honor. Here are some of the statements she made to the judge:

"Your Honor," she said, "in this case I cannot break my word just to stay out of jail. The right of civil disobedience based on personal conscience is fundamental to our system and honored throughout our history."

She noted that she had covered the war in Iraq, and had lived and worked all over the world.

"The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries," she said, "but those with an independent press that works every day to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know."

In a statement, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, said Ms. Miller had followed her conscience, with the paper's support. "There are times when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience," Mr. Sulzberger said. "I sincerely hope that now Congress will move forward on federal shield legislation so that other journalists will not have to face imprisonment for doing their jobs."

Ms. Miller, speaking from the Virginia jail, said that her first hours in confinement had struck her as surreal but that the jail's staff had been professional and courteous. Her trip from the courthouse to the jail, she said, had brought home the gravity of her situation.

"They put shackles on my hands and my feet," she said. "They put you in the back of this car. I passed the Capitol and all the office buildings I used to cover. And I thought, 'My God, how did it come to this?' "

Here is a new York Times article and editorial on the topic.

Here are some great excerpts from the editorial:

Some people - including, sadly, some of our colleagues in the news media - have mistakenly assumed that a reporter and a news organization place themselves above the law by rejecting a court order to testify. Nothing could be further from the truth. When another Times reporter, M. A. Farber, went to jail in 1978 rather than release his confidential notes, he declared, "I have no such right and I seek none."
By accepting her sentence, Ms. Miller bowed to the authority of the court. But she acted in the great tradition of civil disobedience that began with this nation's founding, which holds that the common good is best served in some instances by private citizens who are willing to defy a legal, but unjust or unwise, order.

This tradition stretches from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad, to the Americans who defied the McCarthy inquisitions and to the civil rights movement. It has called forth ordinary citizens, like Rosa Parks; government officials, like Daniel Ellsberg and Mark Felt; and statesmen, like Martin Luther King. Frequently, it falls to news organizations to uphold this tradition. As Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1972, "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring to fulfillment the public's right to know."
Critics point out that even presidents must bow to the Supreme Court. But presidents are agents of the government, sworn to enforce the law. Journalists are private citizens, and Ms. Miller's actions are faithful to the Constitution. She is defending the right of Americans to get vital information from news organizations that need not fear government retaliation - an imperative defended by the 49 states that recognize a reporter's right to protect sources.

A second reporter facing a possible jail term, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, agreed yesterday to testify before the grand jury. Last week, Time decided, over Mr. Cooper's protests, to release documents demanded by the judge that revealed his confidential sources. We were deeply disappointed by that decision.

We do not see how a newspaper, magazine or television station can support a reporter's decision to protect confidential sources even if the potential price is lost liberty, and then hand over the notes or documents that make the reporter's sacrifice meaningless. The point of this struggle is to make sure that people with critical information can feel confident that if they speak to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, their identities will be protected. No journalist's promise will be worth much if the employer that stands behind him or her is prepared to undercut such a vow of secrecy.

It is for these reasons that most states have shield laws that protect reporters' rights to conceal their sources. Those laws need to be reviewed and strengthened, even as members of Congress continue to work to pass a federal shield law. But at this moment, there is no statute that protects Judith Miller when she defies a federal trial judge's order to reveal who told her what about Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as an undercover C.I.A. operative.

Ms. Miller understands this perfectly, and she accepts the consequences with full respect for the court. We hope that her sacrifice will alert the nation to the need to protect the basic tools reporters use in doing their most critical work.

To be frank, this is far from an ideal case. We would not have wanted our reporter to give up her liberty over a situation whose details are so complicated and muddy. But history is very seldom kind enough to provide the ideal venue for a principled stand. Ms. Miller is going to jail over an article that she never wrote, yet she has been unwavering in her determination to protect the people with whom she had spoken on the promise of confidentiality.

I echo the sentiment that concludes the editorial:

We stand with Ms. Miller and thank her for taking on that fight for the rest of us.



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