Is Blogger Josh Wolf a Political Prisoner?
Photo by Bill Carpenter
BLOGGER JOSH WOLF: NOW A POLITICAL PRISONER?
Bloggers with no anarchist ties who shot video of the same G-8 protest in San Francisco, in 2005, came forward to report two at-home contacts by FBI agents were not followed-up after Wolf was jailed, but they say no one, including Wolf’s attorneys, would listen.
By Howard Vicini
Posted March 10, 2007
It wouldn’t be surprising if no one in Washington is paying attention to the case against independent journalist, Josh Wolf, who has been held in coercive custody longer than any other reporter in U.S. history for refusing a federal grand jury subpoena to turn over video he shot at a San Francisco demonstration against the G8 in July 2005.
After all, these are bad days for the Bush administration. Consider yesterday’s admission that the FBI improperly and, in some cases, illegally used the Patriot Act to secretly obtain personal information about U.S. citizens, according to an audit by the administration’s own Justice Department.
That came on the heels of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ mea culpa behind closed doors before Congressional members outraged over his remarks concerning the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, as well as the firings themselves, while Congressional leaders are also ratcheting-up their attempts to force an end to the war in Iraq.
Add to that, an administration known for its hard-line being forced by continuing bloodshed in Iraq to sit down with Iran and Syria even as the President is being mocked on the world stage by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an anti-imperialist rally in Argentina while Bush is visiting in neighboring countries.
One might conclude under these circumstances that consideration of Wolf’s case in Washington is as likely as someone worrying about a mosquito in a swamp while gators are snapping at his heels.
"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later."
Yet, there is growing evidence that someone at a higher level than the Ninth Circuit wants the Wolf case to go away quietly.
In spite of a ban on press access at the Dublin facility where he is held, Wolf has been gaining international attention for his stand and numerous professional press organizations world-wide have rallied to his cause. So, it is conceivable that the judge or the Justice Department, who have clearly been using the case to send a signal to other journalists, may have determined they have reached a point of diminishing returns.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has rejected several defense requests to free Wolf, suddenly referred the case to U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero “in the interest of reaching a resolution satisfactory to both sides.” That left everyone scratching their head because a referral normally happens at the request of one of the Parties and the case appears close to being settled. Neither applied to Wolf’s case.
However, after a long hearing before U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero on Wednesday, the magistrate issued only a brief statement, "A settlement conference was held; the case did not settle." He went on to say that he will discuss with Wolf's lawyers and federal prosecutors "whether to schedule a further settlement conference." There is an indication that might happen in three weeks but nothing else is known about the hearing because Wolf’s lawyers were slapped with a gag order concerning the case.
What is known is that Wolf is in no mood to give up on his principles after investing more than six months behind bars. He has maintained from the beginning that the case is as much about his political beliefs as about prosecutors needing his video, the published portion of which is already in the hands of the grand jury.
At the urging of his lawyers who put forward the idea without consulting him, Wolf has already agreed to allow the judge, but not prosecutors, to review the tape which he claims holds nothing of value but the offer was rejected. Now, with the grand jury due to expire in July, Wolf also knows that time is on his side.
In a statement he prepared for his supporters who gathered outside the San Francisco Federal Building during mediation on Wednesday, Wolf stated, “I am more than prepared to return to prison and wait until the grand jury expires or until I can convince Judge Alsup that I will never be coerced and will not sacrifice my principles for my personal freedom.”
At the center of the public controversy surrounding the case is a debate over whether or not the 24 year old Wolf is a journalist at all. Still a student at the time he shot the video in 2005, he was at the very least an aspiring journalist by any standard with sales of some video to local broadcasters under his belt. Therefore, what seems to be driving the debate is Wolf’s own admission that he is an anarchist and he was covering an anarchists’ demonstration against a G-8 meeting being held in Scotland in July 2005.
At this point, I feel obliged to disclose again that I knew Wolf for a brief time before he was facing these problems. Old and conservative by his standards and not sharing his political views, I saw nothing in him or his beliefs that threatened me or society-at-large. In fact, I met him while we were both involved in volunteer activities where I observed that his commitment and initiative were admirable.
But prosecutors and the judge have clearly another view of Wolf that they have openly expressed in Court. Yet, in spite of their open contempt and international press attention, little has been made of Wolf’s assertion that he is being punished for his beliefs as much as for withholding his video.
Whatever way your sympathies fall, I believe it is important to remember that no Democratic or Republican have ever been denied press credentials to cover an event because of their bias. Even the McCarthy era when communists and socialists were denied free speech was later acknowledged as unconstitutional and detrimental among a free people.
Yesterday’s admission of the FBI’s abuse of provisions of the Patriot Act proves that those in power have short memories and this case seems destined to prove it once again.
There is another significant report that bolsters Wolf’s claim of political censorship that has been largely ignored. Other bloggers with no anarchist ties who shot video of the same 2005 demonstration came forward to report two at-home contacts by FBI agents were not followed-up after Wolf was jailed.
The FBI agents who first contacted Wolf about his video also identified and contacted at least two other bloggers at their home to make the same demand for raw video. But, in spite of two visits to the bloggers’ home and a ‘casual’ meeting elsewhere, no subpoena was ever served on these individuals who do not share Wolf’s sympathies for the anarchist demonstrators.
That this second video, and possibly others, captured the same demonstration at the same moments in time, even capturing Wolf shooting his video at one point, and the knowledge that the FBI identified, contacted, and then lost interest in those who shot it, raise troubling questions about why Wolf alone was subpoenaed and the record-setting length of his incarceration.
After the disgrace at Abu Ghraib, admissions that the CIA hid and interrogated al Qaeda suspects at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, and reports concerning abuse at the Guantanamo Bay detention center that Human Rights Watch has denounced as a shameful blight on US respect for human rights, it is not such a far reach, as it was prior to this administration, to conclude that Wolf may be right: he may being held as a political prisoner by his own government.
Others are coming around to his viewpoint, as well. Full spectrums of journalists and photographers, even those who question Wolf’s credentials, have concluded that Wolf should not have been sent to prison.
San Francisco City Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly are sponsoring a resolution, now in committee, calling for his release and decrying his incarceration, noting, “The California Court of Appeals recently ruled that the California Shield Law ‘is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news,” and that the law protects Internet ‘bloggers’ and other new forms of journalism just as it does traditional journalists.”
This week, San Francisco’s District Attorney Kamala Harris published an opinion column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian noting ‘poor’ political choices by the administration that are affecting San Franciscans, “The U.S. Justice Department is walking down an ominous path by threatening journalists with prison time for protecting their confidential sources … Wolf should be released.
Not surprisingly, a turning point for many was reached when the charge concerning an alleged attempt to set fire to a San Francisco Police Cruiser was dropped. Because the claim was the basis to file the case in federal court and circumvent California’s shield law that would have provided protection for Wolf, many polled who were previously undecided about the case are now concluding that the case against him should also be dropped.
MORE TO COME
More concerning the Bush administration’s attempts to curb First Amendment liberties and the need for a federal shield law to protect journalist will be presented in one hour, live broadcast on AccesSF Channel 29, over San Francisco cable, on Friday, March 16, from 9 to 10 pm.
Among those scheduled to appear are Jeff Perlstein, Executive Director of Media Alliance, an organization formed 30 years ago by independent journalists who came together in support of the journalist who broke the Pentagon Papers story, and Sarah Olson, an Oakland-based radio producer and independent journalist who recently defied a federal subpoena to testify as a prosecution witness concerning an interview she conducted with First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, who is being Court Martialed for refusing to redeploy to Iraq on the grounds that the war is illegal.
Olson also faced the prospect of coercive confinement in a federal facility until Army prosecutors suddenly reversed themselves on the need for her testimony. The broadcast will mark the start of a new initiative by Media Alliance in Defense of Free Expression and other First Amendment guarantees, and to encourage priority action in Congress to enact a robust federal shield law.
Other distinguished media representatives will also appear along with this writer as host for the discussion. Julian Davis, Andy Blue, and other members of the Free Josh Wolf Coalition will be on-hand by telephone to answer questions and accept donations for the Josh Wolf Defense Fund.
There will also be a couple of surprises during the broadcast that no one with an interest in the case will want to miss. Please join us for this important Free Press discussion.
AccesSF Channel 29 - San Francisco
March 16, 2007 - 9 to 10 pm
a BayMediaLab production:
Preserving Freedom of Expression
New Challenges, New Sacrifice
Hosted by Howard Vicini, BayMediaLab
Directed by Ari Krawitz, ThreeWaysMedia
With guests, Al Geto, host of ‘Call me Al’
Jeff Perlstein, Executive Director, Media Alliance
Sarah Olson, independent journalist and radio producer,
Andy Blue, Julian Davis and other members of
the Free Josh Wolf Coalition
and others to be announced.