On 6 February, Josh Wolf became the longest incarcerated journalist in US history. He is in prison for protecting his sources on a matter of principle. The 24 year old Wolf is currently serving time in a federal correctional institute in Dublin, California for refusing to comply with a subpoena to turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury. The jury is investigating events related to an anti G8 meeting in San Francisco in July 2005.
Wolf is an independent journalist and blogger who was jailed on 1 August 2006 when he refused to testify or turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury investigation. Although never convicted of any crime, Wolf is being held on charges of contempt of court in an effort to coerce him to testify and turn over the material. Although he was released on bail on 1 September, he was ordered to return to prison on 22 September pending a hearing before the entire 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Now it seems likely he will remain in prison until July as the 9th Circuit denied his petition for a rehearing in USA v Josh Wolf. According to the prosecution, Wolf videotaped a public demonstration where there may have been an attempt to set a police car ablaze, and where a San Francisco police officer's skull was fractured when he was hit from behind by a demonstrator. The court ruled Wolf does not have the right to withhold video outtakes of the protest.
Interviewed in prison by Amy Goodman, Wolf said he went to the San Francisco G8 protest to document what he felt was an event the “news media was almost certainly likely to ignore”. The protest was held by a group called Anarchist Action. Wolf claims a lone police car rammed into the crowd. One officer fled the scene and Wolf filmed the other being choked by the crowd. The officer that fled the scene had his skull fractured but Wolf did not capture this incident on the video.
Although Wolf is protected by Californian shield laws, the case was heard federally because the San Francisco Police Department receive funding from Washington for training against terrorism and therefore damage to their property is a federal offence. Although 31 states and District of Columbia have media shield laws, there are currently no federal laws that stop reporters from having to divulge sources or turn over their notes in cases that involve federal authorities.
Wolf says the federal Government’s aim is twofold. Firstly they are attempting to identify civil dissidents and form databases. The ACLU has uncovered numerous instances of the government trying to capture identities of people who are protesting against the government. Documents ACLU obtained under Freedom of Information showed that military officials labelled events like a “Stop the War Now” rally in Akron, Ohio in March 2005 as “potential terrorist activity”.
Wolf says the second aim is a move toward state-sanctioned journalism and his status as an independent journalist has been questioned. In a recent court filing, US Attorney Kevin Ryan said "it's only in Wolf's imagination that he is a journalist." The Society of Professional Journalists don’t agree. Their Northern California chapter named Josh Wolf Journalist of the Year for 2006, and will give him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award next month. "Josh's commitment to a free and unfettered press deserves profound respect," SPJ National President Christine Tatum said.
Despite the awards, support from the mainstream media for Wolf has been muted due to their unwillingness to acknowledge the role of independent journalists in today’s media landscape. But Wolf’s attorney warned that his client's activities have ramifications for other media workers. “My client's political activity and free speech activity in the Bay Area as a journalist and this subpoena, with its associated threat of jail time for non-compliance, has an incredible chilling effect on his and other journalist's freedom to gather and disseminate information of groups who espouse dissident beliefs," he said.