Thursday, January 18, 2007


Re: ASNE First Amendment Summit -- Sarah Olson exchange

Today there is a one-day "emergency summit" of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to talk about the growing challenge to the First Amendment posed by the jailing of reporters. We asked Sarah Olson, a free-lance writer subpoenaed to testify in the court-martial of an anti-Iraq war soldier, to comment on her situation by answering a series of questions posed by Bill Densmore.

Sarah Olson provides these comments:
Re: ASNE First Amendment Summit -- Sarah Olson exchange

1) If you have five minutes to speak to the ASNE group gathered tomorrow, what would you like to say; what key message do you want them to hear?

Olson: It is a journalists job to report the news, not to participate in government prosecution of political speech. Responding to these subpoenas erodes the necessary barrier between the press and the government, and forces journalists to function as the investigative arm of the military. Reducing journalists to the eyes and ears of the government subverts the very notion of a free press and silences views that are unpopular with the current administration. In order to this nation to function as a meaningful democracy, we need a press that encourages more debate, not less.

While commonly understood that journliasts should verify their reporting when asked to do so, when speech itself becomes the crime the military is ask me -- as a journalist -- to participate in an act of suppression of personal, political speech. This is untenable.

2) Should First Amendment protections be broader for those seen as practicing "journalism" than for the general public and how does one draw the line?

Olson: What needs protection is a reporters ability to gather and report the news. When journalists are widely understood to be the eyes and ears of the government or in collusion with government officials to put forward a particular spin or message, citizens are less likely to express their views to the press. In particular, dissenting voices are left out of the debate. To the extent that the press seeks to illuminate all aspects of debate and to bring the public closer to an understanding of an issue, journalists must be protected from having to participate in government prosecutions.

For example, if I were to participate in this court-martial, what other dissenting officer would speak with me individually, or with other members of the press?

3) As you consider whether or not to respond to a request to testify or produce your outtakes, what is going through your mind in terms of the costs/benefits of any approach? Considering that those practicing journalism have been and likely will at times be in a similar situation, what tools or counsel would be most helpful to you to help you assess your situation?

Olson: Various professional organizations have been incredibly helpful. SPJ and PEN have both issued statements on my behalf, and the LA Times published an editorial. Editor & Publisher published my own op-ed about the situation.

Because this is such an unusual situation -- the military the only place that I know of in the country -- where a man can be facing up to four years in prison simply for personal, political speech, there isn't a lot of precident and hasn't been much to guide me in terms of clear cut ethical advice.

4) From the perspective of someone affected very personally, what do you regard as the critical issues for democracy inherent in your plight and that of Josh Wolf?

Olson: I believe the press is the life blood of a complex democracy which depends upon an informed citizenry to make rational and considered decisions. If you don't hear about it on the news or read about it in the papers, how do you know what is happening in this country?

Press freedom is always impinged during a war, and this Iraq war is no different. Currently, the question of patriotism is often raised as a reason why the press as well as the rest of the nation should stand behind the administration in its prosecution of the Iraq war. "Support the troops," is often used to silence questioning or dissenting voices. But I listened to Paul Paul Rieckhoff at the Media Reform Conference say that he and other recent veterans felt betrayed by the media's inability to ask tough questions of the administration in the run up to the Iraq war.

5) For those in and outside traditional media, what do you think is the best way to explain to the public that confidentiality of sources and reporting outtakes are vital issues for participatory democracy?

Olson: First, I have been framing the issue as the forced participation in government prosecutions, rather as an issue of confidential sources or unpublished material. The Army says it only wants me to verify my reporting, but in my case simply taking the stand and saying that I reported accurately provides the government with the one piece of evidencce they need to convict my source of one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer.

In terms of how to explain this, it's a good question. People don't seem to care that much about protecting journalist rights these days. Many seem to feel that we should have fewer rights than other citizens.

But to me it's very simple. When a reporter is forced to participate in government prosecutions, especially of political speech people will simply stop speaking to the press. Journalists will be reduced to copying down government press releases and the vibrancy and complexity of beliefs in the United States is silenced.

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