By Sarah Phelan
Like a mole emerging from a hole, bespectacled freelance journalist Josh Wolf squinted into the September sunlight, as he stood on the steps outside the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit building on Seventh Street in San Francisco. It was the 24-year-old’s first taste of freedom after a month-long stint inside Dublin Federal Correctional Institute for refusing to give a federal grand jury video outtakes of an anarchist protest turned violent.
During his stretch at Dublin, Wolf was only able to breathe fresh air for an hour each day, and he looked as if was relishing the feeling of the sun on his skin, as he voiced his belief that what should have been a SFPD investigation into an assault on an officer, turned into a federal witch hunt, which so far has involved the FBI, the Joint Taskforce on Terrorism, a grand jury—and the thousands of tax payers’ dollars to prosecute and jail him.
As Wolf, who’d traded prison dudes for black jeans, blue shirt and white sneakers, began to speak, jackhammers went off across the the road, as if some evil mastermind was making a last ditch effort to censor the truth. The crowd of camera wielding, microphone-holding paparazzi pressed closer, as Wolf expressed his hope that the 9th Circuit’s decision to grant him bail was a positive sign. (A month earlier, District Court Judge Alsup denied Wolf bail, calling his case “a slamdunk for the federal government.”)
“The late Senator Paul Wellstone once said that significant social change comes from the bottom up,” said Wolf, who hopes his case will ultimately help cement the rights of the independent, as well as those of the traditional, media. Expressing concern that the federal shield laws that are currently on the table “do not encompass people who meet my criteria,” Wolf critiqued the proposed laws for only protecting those who are employed by or under contract with an established media outlet.
‘There should be a common law to protect journalists,” he said, voicing the belief that anyone who is involved in gathering and disseminating news and information is a journalist, whether they are paid for their activities or not.
“I am a journalist, I have a website, I’ve sold footage, including to MichaelMoore.com,” said Wolf, who worries that proposed federal reporter shield laws will create two classes of journalists, those that report and get paid, and those that do it out of volition. “It will create a corporatocracy in which only corporations are media,” he said. “It goes against the idea of a free and independent press.”
He also critiqued what he saw as an increasing abuse of grand juries, which were established to protect the rights of those accused, but increasingly appear to resemble military tribunals and are used so the feds to secretly coerce and investigate targets.
“There is no means that any extended stay in jail is going to bring about a coercive effect,” said Wolf, who believes the case of former New York Times journalist Judith Miller, as well as those of the two BALCO reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle who still face jail time, helped publicize his plight, as well as the blogosphere.
‘It’s egregious that the feds took up an investigation into an assault in a SFPD office,’ said Wolf, who believes that the alleged arson to a SFPD car was used as a hook, simply because SFPD receives federal funds.
“In my tape you hear someone yell, 'Officer Down!' That’s the extent of it,” said Wolf, in reply to the question of what interest the feds could possibly have in his clips on the cutting room floor.”
“I don’t want my case to be a reason why people don’t get involved in grassroots journalism,” he said,a cknowledging that his case shows there are risks, “An individual can decide what’s important and truly change thw world we live in,” he said, comparing that freedom to the restrictions imposed on journalists who work for corporate media.”
To help freelancers, Wolf would like to see more information out there on what independent journalists should do if they are subpoenaed. “Know your rights and how to protect them,” he advised.
By the way, when was the last time that an assault on a SFPD triggered a federal investigation, involving the FBI, the JTTF, a grand jury and a reporter doing jail time?