By Darren E. Weiss
Freelance video blogger Josh Wolf, who spent over seven months in jail for refusing to comply with a subpoena, was released from a Dublin prison last week after cutting a deal with federal prosecutors to post his notorious footage on his website.
According to the agreement, Wolf will not have to testify or identify the people in the video. The previously unreleased footage he shot in July 2005 of a street demonstration against the G-8 Summit in San Francisco, is now posted on his website, joshwolf.net. During the protest, a police officer was struck in the head with a pipe and an attempt was made to set fire to a police car. The footage showed no evidence of either offense.
Wolf, who served the longest sentence of any journalist in American history, insisted all along that the footage contained nothing significant to the investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Scott Schools. He claimed it was his constitutional right as a journalist to protect his sources and to not assist authorities.
Part of the deal mandated that Wolf answer two questions under penalty of perjury. He was asked whether he saw anyone throw anything at a police car and if he saw the person that San Francisco Police Officer Peter Shields was trying to arrest when he was hit on the head. He replied “no” to both.
Dozens of organizations and advocacy groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), supported Wolf and called for his release.
“We’re pleased this has finally ended,” said Joel Simon, Executive Director of the CPJ. “But we’re concerned that the actions of the federal prosecutors could have a lasting impact on independent journalism.”
Simon said that the case sends a message to bloggers that they don’t have the same protection extended to traditional journalists.
California has a shield law to protect journalists from testifying in state court. However, no such law exists in federal court.
The federal government prosecuted the Wolf case on the grounds that federal funding paid for the San Francisco police car in question.
However, questions of Wolf’s legitimacy as a journalist have surfaced as a result of his case. In 2006 the Society of Professional Journalists awarded Josh WolfÂ¬â€“a self-proclaimed anarchistâ€“with the Journalist of the Year award “for upholding the principles of a free and independent press.”
Debra Saunders, a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, attacked the credibility of his arguments.
“He’s a blogger with an agenda and a camera,” she wrote in a February column. “He does not work for a news organization. He does not answer to editors who fact-check.”
Lowell Bergman, professor at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and correspondent for PBS’s Frontline, interviewed Josh Wolf on the program before Wolf’s stay in prison and believes that Wolf falls under the accepted definition of a journalist.
“Because of the First Amendment and the broad definition of it, anyone who is writing or publishing to an audience is considered a journalist,” Bergman said in an interview with City on a Hill Press. “My observation is the Josh Wolf case raises issues that people in the blogosphere are going to have to confront.”
Wolf’s release from custody was “without prejudice,” meaning the federal government could issue a new subpoena in the future. Wolf could also be held in criminal contempt, which carries separate penalties. However, according to his attorney, this occurence is very unlikely.
Jeff Cohen, media critic and author of the book Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News, defended Wolf.
“Without the ability to protect sources and unpublished materials from the government, journalists are turned into arms of the state,” he said. “Wolf’s tenacity is a model for independent journalists.”