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World Press Freedom Review
United States of America (USA)
2002 World Press Freedom Review
As the United States struggled to come to terms with the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the Bush administration prepared for a possible war with Iraq, journalists and human rights groups expressed concern that the government’s attempts to further increase its surveillance and law enforcement powers would curtail civil liberties, including freedom of expression and press freedom. Freelance journalist Vanessa Leggett, who was jailed in July 2001 after refusing to give her interview notes to federal prosecutors, was released from a Texas jail in January after more than five month’s imprisonment. Two other journalists, David Carson and Edward Powers, Jr., of The New Observer in Wyandotte County, Kansas, were convicted of criminal libel and faced prison sentences of up to one year each.
On 4 January, Vanessa Leggett was released from a Houston prison after a record-breaking 168 days of incarceration. Leggett was found in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon and jailed without bail on 20 July 2001 after she refused to give prosecutors material collected while conducting her investigation into the April 1997 murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton, whose husband, the millionaire and former bookmaker Robert Angleton, was charged with the murder but later acquitted.
Leggett, who was writing a book about the murder case, was asked to hand over her material by a federal grand jury, which initiated proceedings to build a federal case against Robert Angleton after his acquittal. Her research materials included tapes of interviews she conducted in prison with Roger Angleton, Robert’s brother, shortly before he committed suicide. When Leggett refused to comply, citing the confidentiality of her sources, she was found in contempt of court by Judge Harmon, who ordered her jailed for the entire period of the grand jury investigation, or 18 months. She was released when the grand jury probing the murder completed its term.
On 15 April, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Leggett, letting stand a 17 August 2001 appeals court decision that Leggett’s jailing did not violate her constitutional rights under the First or Fifth Amendments. Leggett and her lawyer, Mike DeGuerin, expressed dismay at the ruling and feared that she would be subpoenaed again when Robert Angleton, who was indicted on federal murder charges on 24 January, went on trail.
Throughout the year, there were an increasing number of assaults on press freedom in the United States, including the conviction of two journalists for criminal libel and the decision to subpoena several journalists.
In July, David Carson and Edward Powers Jr., publisher and editor, respectively, of The New Observer in Wyandotte County, Kansas, were convicted of criminal libel after reporting that the mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City and her husband, a district court judge, did not live in Wyandotte County and therefore could not hold public office in the county.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Nick Tomasic brought ten misdemeanour charges of criminal defamation against the two journalists on 1 March 2001. Eight of the charges were based on a November 2000 article in The New Observer, a monthly publication, which alleged that Mayor Carol Marinovich and her husband, County District Court judge Ernest Johnson, did not live in Wyandotte County, but in an affluent county nearby. By law, the mayor and the judge must live in the county where they hold public office. Powers and Carson were also charged with defaming two other individuals by accusing them of being employed by Marinovich to "lie" for her. In the past, the newspaper had been critical of both Marinovich and Tomasic, who is considered a political ally of the mayor. Tomasic denied that his decision was politically motivated, claiming that he filed charges because the allegations made by Powers and Carson were "false and malicious".
On 17 July, a jury found Carson and Powers guilty on seven counts each of misdemeanour libel. The two journalists faced fines and jail sentences of up to a year. The conviction was strongly condemned by free press groups advocating the elimination of criminal defamation laws worldwide. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 19 U.S. states and the District of Columbia still have laws on the books that classify libel as a criminal, and not just a civil offence. The existence of such provisions provide ready examples to those in power in less democratic countries who desire to curb critical coverage.
On 27 November, Judge Tracy Klinginsmith of the Jackson County District Court fined Carson and Powers US$ 3,500 each and sentenced the two to unsupervised probation for one year. The judge suspended all but US$ 700 of the fines for each defendant, pending an appeal in the case.
In January, reporters for the Mexican daily newspaper El Financiero, the Dallas Morning News, and the weekly magazine Insight on the News were served subpoenas in connection with 1999 news articles linking the Hank family of Mexico with drug traffickers. All of the articles quoted a 1999 report by the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), a U.S. federal agency.
In August 2000, the Texas-based Laredo National Bank, of which Carlos Hank Rhon is majority shareholder, and the bank’s CEO, Gary Jacobs, sued author Donald Schulz for "infiltrating" the NDIC and leaking the report to the press. At the time the articles were published, Schulz was working on a book about links between the drug trade and Mexican politicians. Jacobs and the bank also sued the NDIC.
On 9 January 2001, Dolia Estévez, the Washington, DC, correspondent for El Financiero, was subpoenaed by a U.S. court, which instructed her to hand over all research materials, including e-mail correspondence, tape recordings, agendas and lists of U.S. government contacts used to prepare her 1999 article on the NDIC report. In late January, Tracey Eaton of the Dallas Morning News and Jamie Dettmer, a senior editor at Insight on the News, also received subpoenas. In a 19 March decision, Judge Welton Curtis Sewell of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia quashed the subpoena served on Dolia Estévez.
In February, Seattle freelance journalist and Internet publisher Paul Trummel was jailed for refusing to edit his Website to comply with a judge’s order. Trummel was found in contempt of court for breaching an injunction forbidding him to write about Council House, a retirement home where he once lived, in his newsletter and Website. James Doerty, a Superior Court Judge, said Trummel had no professional status as a legitimate investigative reporter because he edited and published his own work, sparking outrage among First Amendment experts and raising a debate of who is, and who is not, a journalist. "If this argument is upheld it is a threat to reporters everywhere," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Trummel, 68, was released after 111 days in jail, including 25 days in solitary confinement, on the condition that he remove from his site the names and addresses of Council House administrators.
In February, media reports that the new Defense Department’s Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), established after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, had proposed spreading "disinformation" to foreign journalists and others in both friendly and unfriendly countries as part of its "war against terror" sparked an uproar both in the U.S. and abroad. Such information would be quickly recycled by American media and mislead U.S. citizens, critics claimed. A White House spokesman said President Bush knew nothing about the project and promised never to mislead the American public. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld closed down the OSI on 26 February, saying that although criticism of the office "was off the mark", its credibility had been irreparably damaged.
Government plans to reform the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), announced on 29 May by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, were also seen as a cause for concern among free press advocates, who feared that the journalist’s right to protect sources and information could be threatened. The reform would give federal agents carrying out investigations linked to the war against terrorism the power to monitor telephone conversations, e-mails and other types of electronic communications without requesting prior authorisation from a judge. The FBI would also be able to access computer databases containing commercial, economic or scientific information.
On 12 July, District Judge T.S. Ellis ruled that Robert Pelton, a freelance journalist who interviewed American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh for CNN at a prison hospital in Afghanistan in December 2001, could not avoid a subpoena to testify in court. Lindh’s lawyers, who said Pelton was a material witness, subpoenaed him to appear at a hearing to decide whether evidence gathered from Lindh in Afghanistan should be thrown out. The defence said Lindh told Pelton he did not want to be interviewed and accused the journalist of acting in concert with the U.S. government to obtain information from their client. Pelton said he had no affiliation with the U.S. government and asked the court to quash the subpoena, saying his forced appearance in court could have a negative impact on newsgathering, particularly for war correspondents.
The suggestion by Lindh’s lawyers that Pelton was acting as an agent of the U.S. government was widely condemned by press freedom organisations. "We can’t afford to have journalists perceived as agents," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said. "It would be like putting a bull’s-eye on the backs of journalists." On 15 July, Lindh pleaded guilty to two separate charges, rendering the subpoena efforts against Pelton moot.
In September, several press freedom groups criticised the continued detention without charge of Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese assistant cameraman for the Doha, Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite TV channel. Al-Haj was among several hundred people held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for suspected links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Al-Jazeera learned of his detention from letters he sent to the station and his wife in April. According to al-Jazeera, al-Haj was detained by Pakistani forces on 15 December 2001 after he and an al-Jazeera reporter attempted to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan. Free press groups criticised the U.S. government for refusing to tell al-Haj’s family and colleagues the reason for the journalist’s detention. Some also expressed fear that the government might be seeking to apply pressure on the satellite channel, noted for airing several taped statements by Osama bin Laden. In October 2001, the State Department reportedly attempted to exert control over the news coverage of al-Jazeera by pressuring Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who was asked to use his government’s influence to soften the reporting stance of the channel.
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