Can a journalist be forced to reveal confidential sources?

Can a reporter be made to divulge secret sources? As long as the journalist is ready to go to jail, the answer appears to be no.

Can a reporter be made to divulge secret sources? As long as the journalist is ready to go to jail, the answer appears to be no.

Los Angeles Times writer William Farr was jailed for 46 days in 1972 for refusing to reveal the identities of his secret informants for a piece he wrote on the Charles Manson murder trial. A freelance journalist named Vanessa Leggett was sentenced to 168 days in prison in 2001 for refusing to divulge details she had learned while conducting research for a book about a homicide in Texas.

When she was also sentenced to jail by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan for refusing to identify her source in conjunction with an inquiry by the government, New York Times reporter Judith Miller joined the ranks of these journalists. The Bush administration is accused by federal prosecutors of leaking the identity of a CIA agent as payback for the agent’s husband publishing an essay critical of the Bush regime. Miller could be aware of the information leaker’s identity, according to the prosecution.

Another New York Times reporter, Matthew Cooper, avoided jail time in connection with the same inquiry by agreeing to testify at the last minute with the approval of his secret source. The source, who had already asked to remain unnamed, urged Cooper to testify.

Journalists see a vow to keep a source’s identity secret as a sacred trust. Because of how sacrosanct this connection is, it frequently results in legal disputes when reporters refuse to comply with court orders that order them to reveal their sources.

Laws “abridging the freedom…of the press” are unconstitutional, according to the First Amendment. The majority of states also have their own rules in place that shield journalists from being required to reveal their sources and, in certain circumstances, previously released documents. Even some states’ state constitutions now have “free press” clauses.

However, the Supreme Court has not been as supportive to the media. In actuality, during the past 35 years, the Court has significantly curtailed journalistic freedom. The Supreme Court declared in 1972 that a journalist did not have the right to decline to testify if they had seen illegal behaviour. Since then, the Court has also ruled that a journalist who disobeys a subpoena can be found in contempt of court, fined, or even imprisoned.

What does the case of Judith Miller thus portend for the future of the free press?

According to journalists, being required to reveal secret sources and information “infringes on the newsgathering process” and weakens the news media’s independence from the government. Furthermore, the Court’s ruling in the Cohen v. Cowles Media case means that journalists are not protected from such lawsuits if they disclose a secret source without that source’s permission and risk civil penalty for breaking their pledge.

Legal experts believe that Miller’s position will make it harder for journalists to conduct their jobs and less likely for sources to be open about what they know about government misbehaviour.

They contend that prosecutors will exploit the statute to their advantage to compel reporters to divulge what they have discovered during their news investigations rather than completing their own duty of conducting a complete and appropriate investigation of a case.

According to Judith Miller’s detractors, she went above and beyond protecting a secret source. They believe she is defending someone who may have purposefully jeopardised the life of an undercover CIA agent, which would be against the law.

However, The New York moments has backed Miller’s decision wholeheartedly, stating in a written statement that: “There are moments when the greater good of our democracy demands an act of conscience. In keeping with her commitment of source secrecy, Judy has made this decision.

Miller was taken to a detention facility in Alexandria, Virginia, where she will stay for the remainder of the government investigation, unless she agrees to expose her source, after the Supreme Court declined to consider her case. Judge Hogan has hinted that Miller may still face more jail time if found guilty of criminal contempt of court based on what he calls an obstruction of justice.