United States - New threat to confidentiality in judge's decision ordering five journalists to disclose sources of reports on anthrax attacks

    MONTREAL, Aug. 17 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders voiced concern
today about a Washington DC federal judge's decision on 13 August ordering
five journalists to identify the government officials who told them that
former government scientist Steven Hatfill was a suspect in a series of
anthrax attacks in 2001.
    Hatfill is suing the justice department under the Privacy Act for
improperly disclosing his personal information and has subpoenaed the five
journalists - Allan Lengel of the Washington Post, Michael Isikoff and Daniel
Klaidman of Newsweek, former USA Today reporter Toni Locy and James Stewart of
CBS News - who reported that he was a suspect. They have all so far refused to
name their sources.
    "Judge Reggie Walton's decision is worrying because it is one of a
growing number of attacks in the United States on the principle of the
confidentiality of journalists' sources," Reporters Without Borders said.
"Journalists have yet again been targeted in a lawsuit by persons who consider
themselves to have been defamed by the government. In all these cases, the
reporters were just doing their job of providing information on a matter of
crucial public importance."
    The press freedom organisation added: "The judge should focus on the
officials who provided the information. By calling into question the
confidentiality of sources, he is undermining investigative journalism. The
proposed federal 'shield law' that would protect the confidentiality of
journalists' sources, which was approved by the judiciary committee of the
House of Representatives on 1 August, must now be quickly adopted by both
House and Senate."
    Hatfill brought his suit against the justice department in 2003, accusing
it of a "coordinated smear campaign." He said federal officials had ruined his
career prospects by telling reporters that the FBI regarded him as a "person
of interest" in the investigation into the mailing of packages containing
anthrax that caused five deaths in 2001.
    When refusing to name their sources, the journalists said there had been
about 100 instances when FBI and justice department officials had provided
them with information about the investigation.
    The judge refused a request from Hatfill's lawyers to subpoena executives
from the Washington Post, Newsweek, USA Today and CBS News but he warned that
he would reconsider his position if the journalists did not comply, and that
the news organisations could be fined.
    He added that identifying the sources was "central" to Hatfill's case and
would be decisive in any future case in which someone tried to hold the
government accountable for leaks condemned by the Privacy Act.
    Hatfill won a libel suit against the New York Times in November 2006. In
this case, the judge ruled that the newspaper could not use information from
anonymous FBI sources as a basis for implicating Hatfill in the attacks. But
he refused to fine the newspaper for not revealing its sources.

For further information:

For further information: Emily Jacquard, Directrice générale, Reporters
Without Borders, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514) 521-7771,

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