REGIONS:

SUBSCRIBE:

Sign up for weekly updates

Judge imposes severe fines in attempt to force journalist to reveal her sources; another journalist faces contempt of court charges

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemns US federal judge Reggie Walton's decision on 7 March 2008 in Washington DC to fine former "USA Today" reporter Toni Locy up to US$5,000 a day to make her reveal her sources for stories in 2003 naming a former army scientist as a suspect in a series of anthrax attacks.

The judge has forbidden her former newspaper or her family to pay the fines on her behalf. If she still has not identified her sources by 3 April, she could be sent to prison. Reporters Without Borders urges the Senate to quickly approve a "shield law" providing federal protection for the confidentiality of journalists' sources, which the House of Representatives passed in October.

"This is unfortunately not the first time that a federal court has tried to force journalists to name their sources," the press freedom organisation said. "Some of Locy's fellow journalists have already gone to prison for refusing to comply. This is why it is urgent that the Senate should quickly debate and approve the shield law recognising the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources."

Reporters Without Borders added: "We are outraged by the methods used by Judge Walton to try to impose his will on Locy. Banning a journalist from turning to her family or her former employer for support is tantamount to persecution."

The judge's 7 March decision upheld a contempt of court ruling issued on 19 February. It obliges Locy to begin paying fines of US$500 a day as of 11 March at midnight (Washington time). After a week, the daily fine will increase to US$1,000 a day. After the second week, it will rise to US$5,000 a day. No one is allowed to help her pay the fines. If she still has not agreed to name her sources by 3 April, when another hearing is scheduled, the judge could order imprisonment. Toni Locy filed an emergency motion on 10 March.

The contempt of court order stems from a lawsuit brought by former army scientist Steven Hatfill in 2003 under the Privacy Act, in which he accuses the justice department of improperly telling journalists that he was a "person of interest" in the investigation into the mailing of packages containing anthrax that caused five deaths in 2001.

On 13 August 2007, Judge Walton ordered Locy and five other journalists - Allan Lengel of the "Washington Post", Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman of "Newsweek", James Stewart of CBS News and Brian Ross of ABC - to identify the government officials responsible for the leaks. Locy named two of her sources after obtaining their agreement. But Walton is insisting that she name all of her sources. Stewart, who has refused to reveal the identity of other sources, could also be held in contempt of court.

Senate approval of the shield law known as the "Free Flow of Information Act," which would provide federal recognition for the right of journalists to protect their sources, would render Judge Walton's order null and void. Already approved by the House of Representatives on 16 October 2007 and by the Senate judiciary committee, it has not yet come before the full Senate for a vote.

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem - Vermont), the head of the judiciary committee, and Senator Arlen Specter (Rep - Pennsylvania) sent a joint letter to the leaders of both parties on 7 March calling for a swift vote on the law. The confidentiality of journalists' sources is recognised by 32 states and the District of Colombia.

Latest Tweet:

The @ifjasiapacific ,@RSF_AsiaPacific , & @CPJAsia reaffirm that amidst the ongoing political turmoil in the Maldi… https://t.co/kZ2GBn3RV1