On Feb. 6, independent journalist Josh Wolf spent his 169th day in jail—the longest any journalist has been incarcerated for protecting sources in United States history.
Wolf, a 24 year-old freelance writer and videographer, remains in federal prison in Dublin, CA, where he is being held in contempt of court for refusing an FBI subpoena to turn over video footage of an August 2005 anti-G8 protest in the Mission District of San Francisco. After selling an edited piece of the footage to the nightly news, as well as releasing it on his own website, Wolf caught the attention of federal investigators, who were pursuing allegations that some protestors attempted to set fire to a police vehicle.
While Wolf’s refusal to turn over the video material would normally be protected under California shield law, which protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources, the case is in the hands of federal jurisdiction—based on an arbitrary argument that the police vehicle in question was paid for with federal funding. In federal court, there is no such shield protection for journalists’ rights.
In an interview featured in a PBS Frontline special titled, “News War,” Wolf expressed skepticism about the motivation behind the case.
“My concern is that this isn’t about the SFPD police car at all. I feel that it’s either an attack on journalism and the rights of journalists,” Wolf said, “Or it’s essentially a witch hunt a la McCarthyism and the 1950s hunt for anyone who may or may not have identified as a Communist.”
We watch see nation falling deeper into a paranoia reminiscent of the Cold War, where anti-government protestors have replaced Communists as the target of frivolous allegations. President Bush’s warrant-less wiretapping on U.S. citizens, the blatant denial of prisoner rights at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition flights to torture so-called terrorists are all the first symptoms of our nation’s ideological disorder.
And in such times, when the American media has played an integral role in fueling the war machine, the consequences are dire and the need for independent voices, like Wolf’s, is imperative.
Wolf has insisted that there is no incriminating evidence on his tapes, and has even offered to allow the judge to view the material to determine that he has no documentation of illegal activity.
But the reason that Wolf insists on keeping the videotape from the grand jury is that he fears that the release would “open the floodgates” to constant court orders until all parties are identified.
“Basically at that point, all those people would be subpoenaed, and it would be a never-ending witch hunt to try to make a database of people engaged in civil dissidence and people engaged in civil dissent,” Wolf continued.
The disproportionate length of Wolf’s incarceration appears to stem from prejudices regarding the definition of “real” journalists.
Perhaps best known for his blog, “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” Wolf has also contributed pieces to publications including the Santa Barbara Independent, UCSB’s Daily Nexus, and the Haight Ashbury Beat, as well as being featured on Indy Media and MichaelMoore.com.
And while Wolf has contributed these established publications, his philosophy on journalism is a great—and refreshing—departure from that of mainstream corporate media: Reporter transparency, he says, is the best way to provide the audience with a fair story.
“One of the critiques about me not being a journalist is that I’m not objective,” Wolf said in the PBS interview. “I define myself as a transparent journalist in that my biases are on the table. . . I think that the viewer is sophisticated enough to see my bias and then take away my bias from my reporting and get a more truthful impression than going in thinking that everything the newscaster is saying is not motivated by advertising budgets and that sort of thing.
“We’re human beings; we can’t turn off our mental capacity to feel about issues.”
And although defining Wolf as a “real” journalist has been quite contentious, others have whole-heartedly recognized Wolf for standing by his ethics in the face of such extreme legal consequences.
“The 169th day of Josh Wolf’s incarceration marks another alarming milestone in the struggle for press freedom in post-9/11 America,” said Linda Foley, president of the media union, The Newspaper Guild at the Communication Workers for America in a press release from Feb. 6. “What was once a cherished constitutional mandate that journalists operate free from government interference increasingly has come under attack.”
Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists named Wolf northern California’s 2006 journalist of the year. While we at City on a Hill Press support this recognition, we hope that it won’t always take incarceration to appreciate the importance of independent voices resonating in the face of increasing corporate consolidation of the media.