The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today welcomed a decision by a United States Appeals Court to delay the imposition of punitive fines on a reporter who has refused to reveal her sources of information. But the judgement is a temporary reprieve and only reinforces arguments, says the IFJ, in favour of a federal shield law to allow journalists to protect confidentiality of their sources.
The appeals court granted a request by the reporter Toni Locy to block fines ordered by a federal judge while she challenges an order finding her in contempt of court.
“We welcome this decision to block the fines but the contempt order is completely inappropriate. The legal system is being used to intimidate journalists and their sources,” said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. “This case shows why the US needs a national law that will protect reporters from this type of judicial action.”
Behind the case is former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill who has sued several government agencies and officials after anonymous sources identified him to media as a "person of interest" in the investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and led to illness among 17 others.
Locy was held in contempt of court by Reggie Walton, a United States District Court Judge in Washington, DC, for refusing to reveal some of her sources on a story she wrote about Hatfill in USA Today. Locy is now a journalism professor at West Virginia University. Walton had ordered Locy to pay a daily fine that started at $500 but would have increased to $5000 per day in a few weeks. The judge has also ruled that no one could help her pay the fines.
The Newspaper Guild (TNG), an IFJ affiliate, filed an amicus brief along with the Reporters Committee for Press Freedom and other US press freedom and journalists’ rights groups, to challenge the draconian fines.
The IFJ says the case demonstrates why a journalist shield law already passed in the House of Representatives and now before the Senate. “It will not provide full protection, but it will take the sting out of this sort of vindictive legal action,” said White.
Despite identifying some sources who released her from her promise of confidentiality, Locy is facing the fines for failing to name others—who she says she does not remember—who gave her information. Retired CBS reporter James Stewart may also face contempt charges.
“The federal shield law will protect journalists from attempts to force journalists to reveal their sources when there is no compelling safety or security reason to do so,” said Linda Foley, TNG President and member of the IFJ Executive Committee. “This is one of numerous cases where journalists have put themselves on the line to protect confidential sources, a critical tool for investigative reporters.”
For more information contact the IFJ at +32 2 235 2207
The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries worldwide