Why is a freelance journalist in jail? The closer you investigate, the more dubious the case looks
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Last week the California State Assembly and Senate unanimously asked Congress to pass a federal shield law to protect journalists from being forced to disclose unpublished material and the identity of a source.
Part of the motivation for the new push for federal legislation is the recent spate of federal attempts to imprison journalists who won't give up their confidential sources. The latest victim of that crackdown, Josh Wolf, is in federal confinement after refusing to give prosecutors outtakes from a video he shot of a demonstration at which a San Francisco police officer was injured and a taillight was broken on a cop car (see "The SFPD's Punt,” 8/23/06) .
And while Congress is reviewing the case for protecting journalists, the Guardian has taken a hard look at the case against Josh Wolf — and it's looking more dubious every day.
For starters, the local cops and the federal prosecutors are trying to claim that Wolf isn't really a reporter.
That's what sources in the San Francisco Police Department and the US Attorney's Office tell us, and it's borne out by the way the feds are pressing their case in court. In legal briefs, the government never refers to Wolf as a journalist, only as a witness. One federal official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, likened Wolf to a convenience store owner who has a security camera that catches criminal activity on tape.
There are all sorts of problems with this argument — the first being that the courts have never formally contested Wolf's journalistic credentials. In fact, the local prosecutors admit in legal briefs that they contacted Washington to seek permission to subpoena Wolf — a process that's required whenever journalists face this sort of legal action.
As Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition points out, "The Justice Department claims it complied with regulations that say you can't subpoena a journalist for outtakes without getting a special order from the attorney general."
Scheer also notes that under California law, even bloggers enjoy the reporter's privilege, as recently established when Apple Computer unsuccessfully tried to obtain the identities of sources who allegedly leaked business secrets to bloggers.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that a case for Wolf qualifying as a journalist could be made under both the House and Senate versions of the Free Flow of Information Act, simply because Wolf was paid for broadcasting his video of the protest.
"In the Senate version, you have to be involved in journalism for money, make some part of your livelihood from it, while the House version is even broader," said Dalglish.
Watching the part of Wolf's video that he's made public, which is posted online at www.joshwolf.net  and was aired without his consent by at least three major TV networks before he was eventually compensated, it's easy to speculate that the SFPD would not have delighted in the picture it paints of local law enforcement.
The footage of the July 8, 2005, protest begins peacefully with protesters, many of them wearing black ski masks, carrying banners saying "Anarchist Action," "War is the Symptom, Capitalism is the Disease," and "Destroy the War Machine." As night comes on, the mood sparkles, then darkens. Someone lights a firecracker, smoke rises, helmeted police arrive, newspaper boxes are turned over, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. office is sprayed with paint, and suddenly a police officer is captured holding a protester in what appears to be a choking position, while someone shouts, "Police brutality! Your career is over, fajita boy!" and an officer warns, "Leave or you're going to get blasted. I'm a fed, motherfucker."
At the same demonstration, Officer Peter Shields was hit in the head while charging into a crowd of protesters — and nobody knows exactly who hit him. That's not on the public part of Wolf's video, and Wolf and his lawyers insist there is no footage of the attack. Wolf fears that the government may be looking for something else — perhaps some video of other protesters — and will ask him to identify them. He refused to turn over the outtakes.
Carlos Villarreal, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, says District Court Judge William Alsup, who ordered Wolf to jail, "made a big deal that Josh did not have agreement with a confidential source, but his argument turns Josh's video equipment into a de facto government surveillance camera."
Noting that there is a lot of trust between Wolf and protesters at demonstrations — "People aren't afraid to go up to the camera and say, 'Did you check out the pig that's kicking a guy down the street?’” — Villarreal claims that "independent journalists are harder to see and spot than their corporate counterparts."
The second, perhaps equally troubling problem is that the Wolf case should never have gone to the federal level in the first place.
Alan Schlosser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told us there are a lot of red flags in the Wolf case, "beginning with the question, 'Is there a legitimate federal law enforcement issue here?’”
The federal agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and the FBI didn't choose to investigate the case — the San Francisco cops requested assistance. That in itself was odd: why is an assault on an officer a federal affair?
Schlosser asks, "Were the feds called in because they aren't bound by the state's reporter's shield law?"
In theory, the local cops say it's a federal issue because a cop car was damaged — and the city gets money from the federal government for law enforcement. Schlosser said it's disturbing that "the SFPD doesn't have to show the federal funds went towards paying for the allegedly damaged car.... So that statute could be applied to any number of situations. It's very troubling. It federalizes law enforcement around demonstrations."
A highly placed source in the SFPD offered a somewhat alarming explanation: the feds were brought in, the source said, not because of shield law issues but because the cops figured the JTTF and the US Attorney's Office would move faster and more aggressively than San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, who has not been on the best terms with the local police.
In other words, if this source is correct, the SFPD is choosing who will prosecute crimes — based on politics, not the law.
As of press time, all Harris's office was saying was that "the DA strongly believes in the First Amendment and the rights of the press. She also believes in justice for members of the SFPD. An officer was gravely injured that evening, and those responsible need to be held accountable."
Asked why the federal government was involved in the investigation, Luke Macaulay, a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office, said, "This is not an attempt to profile anarchists and dissidents. It's an attempt to get to the bottom of a crime."
Macaulay also referred us to federal filings with the US District Court, which conclude that "the issue could not be more straightforward.... The incident is under investigation so that the grand jury can determine what, if any, crimes were committed."
As far as we can tell, there's nothing in writing that lays out when a San Francisco cop is allowed to ask for federal intervention in a case. All the SFPD General Orders say is that department members requesting assistance from an outside agency have to obtain the permission of a deputy chief.
According to records from the Investigations Bureau General Work Detail, Inspector Lea Militello filed a request for assistance from the FBI and JTTF to investigate a "serious assault against an SF police officer." It was approved by Captain Kevin Cashman and Timothy Hettrich, deputy chief of investigations.
As of press time, the SFPD had not returned our calls inquiring why the FBI and JTTF were involved in an assault case, which is usually the domain of the DA's Office.
David Campos, a member of the San Francisco Police Commission, said he thinks the commission needs to look at the issue "to make sure investigations are federalized when it's appropriate and not as a way of getting around California's shield laws."
Reached Aug. 23 by phone in the Dublin Federal Correctional Institute, where he's been held since Aug. 1, Wolf suggested that the feds are after more than pictures. "The Un-American Affairs Committee [in the 1950s] called in one person and forced them to make a list of all the people they knew. It was like Communist MySpace. So, I anticipate that they want all my contacts within the civil dissent movement."
Wolf said he offered to let the judge view his video, which he insists does not capture the arson or assault. “There should not be a federal investigation. I published my video. They can use that to do their investigation." SFBG
With all briefs filed, a decision on the Josh Wolf case is expected by Sept. 4.