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The Nation

Blogger held 171 days and counting

Josh Wolf, who refused to hand over footage of a protest, is the longest-incarcerated journalist in modern U.S. history.

February 08, 2007|Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Freelance videographer Josh Wolf defied a federal grand jury's order in July to hand over raw footage of anarchists clashing with police in San Francisco.

He said he was protected by the 1st Amendment. A federal judge said he was in contempt of court.

On Aug. 1, the 24-year-old blogger reported to the federal detention facility in Dublin, Calif. He has been there ever since -- except for a period in September when he was freed while a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the legality of his incarceration. (The panel upheld it.) As of Tuesday, he had been incarcerated longer than any journalist in modern U.S. history.

Wolf's mother, a third-grade teacher from Wrightwood, will be on Capitol Hill today to lobby members of Congress to help free her son. Liz Wolf-Spada also plans to push for a federal shield law that would protect mainstream journalists as well as independent journalists and bloggers like her son.

"I'm asking that they treat an independent journalist the same way they treat the journalists who work for the Hearst Corp.," she said, referring to the company that owns the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers.

One police officer was injured in the anti-globalization protest that Wolf filmed in July 2005, and outgoing U.S. Atty. Kevin Ryan's office is investigating whether protesters tried to torch a police car. Prosecutors argue that because federal money helped pay for the police car, the matter should be heard in federal court. Ryan spokesman Luke Macaulay said the grand jury needed the video to "determine what, if any, crimes were committed."

In a statement posted on his blog Tuesday, Wolf -- who sold some of his footage to San Francisco television stations -- explained his decision not to comply with the grand jury's request.

"If the U.S. attorney can compel journalists to testify about what they've learned through their work and to force them to turn over their unpublished materials, then not only will the public be unable to trust reporters, but journalists themselves will become de facto deputies and investigators," read the message attributed to Wolf at joshwolf.net.

Supporters contend that his case is similar to that of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who face up to 18 months in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with subpoenas to name their confidential sources for leaked grand jury testimony about steroid use in major league baseball. Last month, two congressmen called on Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to withdraw those subpoenas.

California, like several other states, has a shield law that protects journalists employed by news organizations from having to disclose unnamed sources or produce unpublished materials. That state law does not apply to Wolf, however, because his case is being tried in federal court.

Wolf's case has won the support of several media watchdog groups that see his incarceration as an attack on press freedom.

Lucie Morillon, who heads the Washington office of the international group Reporters Without Borders, said there was debate within her organization about Wolf's status as a bona fide journalist. The group was convinced, in part, by the fact that he had sold some of the footage to mainstream news organizations, she said.

"It's very hard to describe who is and isn't a journalist nowadays," she said. "We believe in this case he behaved like a journalist, and that's why he deserves protection."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, expressed a similar sentiment.

"He was essentially a freelancer," she said. "Oftentimes, prosecutors will go after freelancers when they would never go after full-time mainstream journalists."

Federal prosecutors in San Francisco dismiss such allegations, referring in a Jan. 29 court filing to Wolf's "imagination that he is a journalist."

Today marks Wolf's 171st day in jail. The previous record for incarceration of a journalist was held by freelance writer Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days in federal custody in Houston for refusing to turn over notes about a murder investigation.

Martin Garbus, Wolf's attorney, said his client was likely to remain in prison until at least July, when the grand jury's term expires.

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adam.schreck@latimes.com

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