Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Freelancer freed

What could you accomplish in 226 days - roughly seven and a half months?

Josh Wolf served a record-setting prison term for journalists.
Wolf, 24, spent 226 days behind bars for not turning over video tape footage sought by San Francisco prosecutors. During a criminal investigation of a 2005 street protest that turned violent, prosecutors wanted to view unreleased video that Wolf shot. When he refused to turn it over for the grand jury investigation, he was held in contempt and jailed having never been convicted of any crime.

Wolf claimed he had a First Amendment right as a journalist to shield his video (and sources). His jail time was the longest served by a journalist who was unwilling to testify.

What makes this case particularly interesting is that Wolf is a freelance journalist and blogger. He runs His ordeal begs the question - are bloggers just journalists helping to fight for confidentiality of sources, or are they making it harder for those in traditional journalism to do so?

The label of "journalist" is currently undergoing a transformation. Citizen journalism is a new form that allows anyone with a camera, a keyboard and an Internet connection the ability to break and report news. Traditional roles and definitions are no longer the only ones being recognized, just ask Wolf.

Are journalists like Wolf helping or hurting the cause? He was employed by no one but himself and therefore could play by his own rules. Was he playing by his own rules again or was he upholding journalistic virtues?

His willingness to serve jail time would seem answer the question about his convictions - he was fighting for the rights of journalists. But was his saga a real fight or just a sign of the times?

Journalistic rights seem to be eroding in the courts these days (Judith Miller, the Valerie Plame trial). It remains to be seen if Wolf's imprisonment and unwillingness to cooperate was a push against the trend or another unfortunate incident.

And what happens when a blogger without Wolf's fortitude comes under the fire of a prosecutor looking for a grand jury indictment? Will they fold or fight?

Josh Wolf stood up for those rights. He did agree to submit the unreleased video to prosecutors but he refused to testify. The video was also put up on his blog at the time of his release.

Kevin Sites, a Medill graduate, posted this story about Wolf:
Sites is trying to determine if Wolf is a journalist or simply an activist for his own causes. Whatever he may be, the question here is what those 226 days did for the rights of journalists.


At Saturday, April 07, 2007, Blogger LL said...

I hope I never have to be in the position where I have to decide whether or not to reveal a source or a piece of information to the courts. I can't imagine the moral dilemma that journalists faced with such a decision have to go through. In this case though I wonder if Wolf really qualifies as a journalists or just a popular blogger that is passionate about his work. Frankly, I'm not sure if his jailing did much for the rights of journalists, but then again the line between journalist, reporter, blogger, webcaster, ect... are being blurred. Maybe it is time to think of stricter quidelines to classify the real journalists from those blogging and setting up videos on YouTube.


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