A reporter stands up to the army

Sarah Olson fights a subpoena to tesify against an antiwar soldier -- and faces felony charges
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sarah@sfbg.com

Oakland freelance writer and radio journalist Sarah Olson has a tall, willowy frame; long silky hair; and a clearly articulated understanding of the reasons she believes that testifying against a source, First Lt. Ehren Watada, would turn her into an investigative tool of the federal government and chill dissenting voices across the United States.

Watada faces a court-martial in February; he's charged with one count of missing troop movement and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer — charges that stem from interviews he gave Olson along with other reporters in 2006 in which he openly criticized the Bush administration and the war on Iraq.

Olson faces her own legal nightmare: if she doesn't testify against Watada, the government can charge her with a felony. That's potentially more serious than the contempt of court charges against freelance videographer Josh Wolf and San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada.

"My argument for being against having to comply with the subpoena is strictly journalistic, " says Olson, who has been covering the antiwar movement and the conscientious objector movement since 2003. "When the government uses a journalist as its eyes and ears, no one is going to talk to that journalist any more."

Beyond the fear that her own professional credibility will be eviscerated, the 31-year-old Olson objects to journalists, including herself, being asked to participate in the prosecution of free speech.

Although all the Army wants her to do is assert her stories quoting Watada are true, she's not going along. "The problem I have with verifying the accuracy of my reporting is that in this case the Army has made speech a crime. Watada's case raises incredibly important speech issues as to what is and isn't legal for an officer to say. Can Watada's defense put the war on trial? Can you bring the question of the legality of this war into the discussion? Normally, that wouldn't be allowed into discussion in a military court, but since he's been charged with speech issues, shouldn't he be allowed to have the opportunity to put those statements in context?"

And while her stories and radio broadcasts are readily and publicly available to Army prosecutors, Olson points out, "Once they get you up on the stand, they can ask you anything."

What binds the Olson, Wolf, and Williams–Fainaru-Wada cases are the broader issues of press and speech freedom and the absence of a strong reporter's shield at the federal level.

"The proposed federal shield laws offers poor protection to journalists, but they probably wouldn't even cover me, and they probably wouldn't cover bloggers ever," observes Olson, referring to the legislation currently under congressional consideration.

As for entering into a conversation about who is or isn't a journalist (as the San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney's Office have sought to do in Wolf's case), Olson says, "[That] is degrading for the whole profession. And what it doesn't do is stand up for the civil liberties that are constitutionally afforded to everyone, nor does it protect a meaningful and independent press."

"My duty," Olson says, "is the public and its right to know and not to the government. I'm concerned that the Army is asking a journalist to participate in the suppression of free speech." *