As the world mourned Monday the Paris bloodshed and debated President Obama’s European absence, a critically important development took place in Washington.
James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, won his legal fight against the U.S. Department of Justice, which wanted him to disclose the sources he used in his newspaper and book coverage of a failed U.S. operation against Iran’s nuclear program.
Risen, backed by his employer and legal team, refused for more than seven years. Prosecutors believe the facts came from Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer on trial for giving Risen the information.
At stake was journalists’ ability to report free of government interference, a bedrock component of the First Amendment’s press freedoms.
Undoubtedly, Monday’s announcement that Risen won’t have to testify at Sterling’s trial is a victory for journalism and the public’s right to know about their government’s actions. Risen’s rights as a journalist should be considered rock-solid …
Perspective, as always, is important.
Before James Risen came Gareth Jones, a Welsh reporter who traveled to Soviet Ukraine and reported on the government-caused famine that killed millions in 1932 and 1933. Jones’ dispatches were carried by newspapers in Britain, Germany and America.
A 2009 story in the London Telegraph explains what happened next. The Soviets banned him and criticized his work’s authenticity. Two years after his reports were published, he died in China, killed by bandits. “Later investigations into the circumstances of his death uncovered a trail of Soviet involvement,” The Telegraph wrote.
Gareth Jones, journalist, risked — and lost — his life for writing about terribly important facts a government wanted suppressed.
By comparison, James Risen was fortunate. His life wasn’t in danger. But his journalistic ethics were, as were his legal rights should he refuse to testify and risk being held in contempt. The Obama administration’s crusade against leakers of government information scooped up Risen, which was absurd, making his a cause celebre for the lovers of journalistic freedom.
We cheer Risen’s victory. It was long overdue. But we’re not naive to think similar situations won’t arise again. Joel Kurtzberg, Risen’s attorney, said the Justice Department has, in essence, created court precedent that journalists may be forced to deal with for years to come. That’s chilling. “I worry about future administrations,” he said. “Now there’s bad precedent, and not every executive branch in the future will exercise their discretion the way this one did. It didn’t have to go this way.”
— Anniston (Alabama) Star,