Reporters Behind Bars

The video blogger has now been in prison for six months for refusing to turn over his tapes.

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Josh Wolf holds an unfortunate record. As of today, the video blogger has clocked 183 days in federal prison, the longest period that any U.S. journalist has been jailed in modern times for refusing to testify about his sources. Of course, the distinction assumes the 24-year-old Wolf is indeed a journalist, and not everyone is willing to call him that.


In July, Wolf filmed a crowd of black-block anarchists as they protested the G8 summit, taping them as they marched through San Francisco’s Mission District carrying placards that said, “Destroy the War Machine” and chanting, “Fuck the Policemen!” The protest quickly turned rowdy as the masked throngs dragged newsstand boxes into intersections, tagged a bus, and splattered shop windows with paint bombs. Many of the protesters were Wolf’s acquaintances, and his video shows them being shoved by policemen and confronted by drawn weapons. “Leave or you are going to get fucking blasted,” an officer appears to say. “I’m a fed, motherfucker.”

A few days after the protest, Wolf was visited at his apartment by an FBI agent. The agent wanted to know if Wolf had witnessed protesters vandalizing a police car and striking a police officer, who had been hospitalized that night with a fractured skull. He asked to see Wolf’s videotape, but Wolf was reluctant to hand it over. Wolf said he’d never filmed the attack—he later released footage indicating he’d been taping elsewhere during the assault—and he didn’t want to show authorities what he believed was privileged information he’d gathered as a journalist.

In February, 2006 the FBI subpoenaed the tape. When Wolf refused to provide it, he was incarcerated on contempt charges in a Dublin, California, federal prison.

Normally, Wolf might have been kept out of jail under California’s shield law, which protects journalists from being compelled to disclose their sources, yet authorities are pursuing the case as a federal matter (arguing the police car was paid for with federal funds); federal law doesn’t offer Wolf the same protection. Indeed, the government says Wolf is an amateur shrouding himself in the mantle of press freedom as an excuse to protect his friends. Hoping to compel him to testify, U.S. District Judge William Alsup denied Wolf a furlough over the Christmas holidays and prison officials will only allow him to speak with the media in fifteen minute intervals over the phone. Even so, journalists have rallied to his cause. In November the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named him a “Journalist of the Year.”

Mother Jones spoke with Wolf on February 9.

Mother Jones: Could you describe the room you’re in right now?

Josh Wolf: Right now I am in the jail administrator’s secretary’s office, but he doesn’t have a secretary anymore. I’m sitting at a desk in front of a computer in a traditional sort of office environment at the moment. I’ve been staying in what is probably about a 12×10 foot cell. There is a small window, two bunks, we get two bins where we store our stuff, and there’s four hooks. Additionally legal bins are available for storing legal material.

MJ: How are you holding up?

JW: I’m holding up pretty good. Obviously there’s numerous blows to my psyche throughout the experience. Reading the U.S. Attorney’s opposition to my motion (for release from prison) was a bit flabbergasting—the sort of venom that he spewed just kind of blew me away.

MJ: What in particular bothered you?

JW: In the opposition to the motion, he stated: “More time in prison may help (Wolf) realize that it is impossible to reconcile his imagination that he is a journalist somehow protecting contacts.” And I think it is a very frightening omen that we have the U.S. Justice Department—the prosecutorial arm of the government—trying to make the decision as to who is and isn’t a journalist. And that’s the first sign of state sanctioned journalism, which is completely against what is meant by the concept of a free press guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

MJ: To this point, you quote Thomas Jefferson in your blog: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

JW: Clearly, if Jefferson felt this way, I don’t think he would like the face of what journalism has become. And also I don’t think that he would like the over-regimented government that we have. That statement clearly indicates, along with his line, “The best government is the government that governs the least,” that bureaucracy and government and overzealous prosecution does not fit in with the original view of America that prompted the Declaration of Independence.

MJ: It’s generally accepted that the video you made doesn’t include footage of people striking police officers or damaging the squad car, so why do you think it’s important that you refuse to hand it over?

JW: It’s important to realize that the subpoena is not only for my tape, but also for my testimony. And if you’ve read the U.S. opposition for the motion for release, which was filed on I believe January 29th of this year, it points out that we did approach the U.S. Attorney at one point in time with the possibility of making a compromise: I turn over the tape and then they excuse me from having to answer any questions. He refused, and then he also brought that in as a reason to show that the coercion was working.

I feel that I shouldn’t have to act as an investigator for the government and identify individuals who are my contacts in this particular political movement. To force a journalist to act as a sort of detective identifying civil dissidents is clearly a position that nobody wants to be in, and clearly would cause all sorts of problems with future contacts and trust and all that sort of thing.

MJ: It would have a silencing effect.

JW: It would have a chilling effect, but more than that…if you read their motion, you will see that they do not deny at all that they are seeking me to identify the participants of the demonstration, who likely are involved in nothing more than having political beliefs outside of the American norm.

MJ: Your case has caused intense debates over whether bloggers are journalists, and thus deserve immunity from subpoenas. The main argument against your position is that the barrier to becoming a blogger is low. Tony Soprano could set up a blog and then claim his partners in crime are journalistic sources. What is your response to this?

JW: Jeff Jarvis (of the blog BuzzMachine) said that. That’s an interesting one. My view is that if Tony Soprano were to start documenting his exploits and say his partners in crime were sources, then he’d be a participant of the actual crime involved, which would probably violate any sort of protection overcoming the balancing test that should be employed.

But if you have a blog about your cat, and one day your cat starts to get sick and you think it’s from the new pet food you changed to, and you start looking at the pet food and realize it’s laced with arsenic, and you eventually make contact with someone at the pet store who explains how it happened or something but they want to go off-record on that– well, you’ve just become a journalist: You may have not been planning on it, you may have been planning on just talking about Fido, but suddenly you’re now engaged in investigative journalism, and that should be protected. I think that it’s not a question of being in a class of ‘journalist,’ so much it is that these activities are legitimate journalistic activities and should be protected.

MJ: I understand New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was also briefly thrown in jail for refusing to reveal sources, has interviewed you in prison a couple of times. What do you think of her?

JW: I wasn’t following her situation carefully enough, nor had I read the New York Times when she was employed there, to make an accurate, honest assumption of what I think of her as a journalist. I’ve read various critiques—critiques is putting it lightly—of her coverage—that she was just a stenographer leading up to the Iraq war—from sources that I do trust; however, I don’t have the access to actually reread those articles and form an opinion about her as a journalist.

MJ: The press has obviously given major coverage to Miller and to San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who face jail time for refusing to reveal the source of leaked grand jury testimony from the Barry Bonds steroids investigation. Do you see a double standard in the way the press has covered you?

JW: I certainly see a double standard in regards to the television media, although even that is difficult for me to gauge, because I am in a media vacuum here.

It seems like the Chronicle has done a pretty good job of covering my situation. Where I see a very, very disturbing disparity between myself and the Chronicle is that within about two weeks of each other we were both ruled in contempt by the United States Northern California District Court. Since then, I’ve been in jail, and since then, they’ve been free, and that clearly shows that there has been a sort of prejudicial treatment of me vs. them.

MJ: Why do you think that is?

JW: We could say that it has been a difference of judges, or it could simply be an issue of, “They are the corporate media, they are the Hearst Corporation, we don’t want to throw them in jail without being very careful about what we are doing, if at all.” That could be part of it. It could be that they wanted some sacrificial lamb, and I got to be it. It’s hard to determine exactly why it is, so much as it’s easy to see that there is a difference.

MJ: A few weeks ago House Speaker Nancy Pelosi petitioned the Justice Department to rescind the subpoenas against Williams and Fainaru-Wada, but didn’t mention you. Has her staff ever told you why?

JW: I know that when some friends of mine went to Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, they spoke to Pelosi’s Washtington, D.C. staff, who said that they were unaware of my plight completely. Which is interesting because I know that there were at least 500 to 1000 phone calls to her San Francisco office over a matter of a couple of weeks when we were trying to drive that up. So it seems weird that there’s such a lack of communication around this issue and yet they get so many calls from their constituents about it.

MJ: Your mom told me you’ve made some famous friends in the Dublin prison, among them Barry Bonds’ trainer Greg Anderson. What can you tell us about him?

JW: He’s a nice guy and doesn’t eat meat, which is a little surprising in that he’s a fitness person and generally they are like, ‘Lots and lots of meat, and lots of protein.’ Very quiet.

MJ: Describe some of the more interesting letters that you’ve gotten.

JW: The most interesting letter I got was the one piece of hate mail I received on this round. It had a picture of what looked like either Iraqi or Afghani kids that had been maimed in a bomb, like a landmine or something, in a massacre, with the father weeping over them, with the word “Untitled,” written above it, and underneath it was: “I hope you enjoy your stay in prison!!!!”

I’ve also gotten a lot of letters that are just like, you know, “This is exactly what we need, this is a wonderful counterpoint to the Judith Miller situation, which was simply protecting the administration itself.” I’ve gotten probably 300 to 400 letters at this point. All of them have been positive, for the most part.

MJ: I’m sure you’ve had plenty of time to mull things over in the past six months. Have you had any particular insights?

JW: I’ve had an insight that basically the justice department functions with a cold, calculating approach that doesn’t take into account that basically they are locking up human beings who all have unique situations that need to be handled in a unique manner. I think that that’s very disturbing. I’ve had the realization that the hardest part about being imprisoned is not being in prison but being disconnected from the world in ways that are generally unhealthy—there’s no communication both in or out–people are being taken away from their children, and the children are in prison for losing their dads far more than the father is imprisoned from being in prison.

MJ: What keeps you going in there?

JW: Knowing that they can’t hold me longer than 18 months, and the many letters of support and encouragement I receive from all over the world.

MJ: What do you want to do when you get out? Do you have any job offers yet?

JW: I haven’t received any direct offers while I’ve been in. There was an internet TV station that was wanting me to contact them as soon as I got out the first time about possibly having a show. I might be possibly trying to pursue going to journalism school in order to get a better grasp and a more comprehensive understanding of the history of journalism, and how bloggers and advocacy journalists fit into this whole mold. Because, the way I see it, journalists back when the country was founded, like Thomas Paine, were anything but fair and balanced. Lou Dobbs is anything but fair and balanced; these are clearly advocates. And where does all of this stuff fit together? How do we make sense of the new face of journalism?


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