Revolution #68, November 5, 2006
Government Persecution of Journalist Josh Wolf
Josh Wolf, a journalist, videographer, and political activist, has spent over two months in federal prison for refusing a request by a federal grand jury to testify and turn over a videotape he made of a July 2005 protest in San Francisco against the G-8 Summit. Wolf could be forced to stay in prison until July 2007, when the term of the Grand Jury ends. This case reveals the extremes the government will go to in attempts to silence, suppress, and intimidate journalists who expose the truth.
Wolf filmed the demonstration, sponsored by Anarchist Action, and posted edited footage on his video blog and on Indymedia. He also provided this footage to mainstream television stations. The video shows demonstrators marching in the streets carrying banners reading, “War Is the Symptom, Capitalism Is the Disease” and “Destroy the War Machine.” It shows police demanding that demonstrators get on the sidewalk or be arrested. And it shows police brutally choking and sitting on top of a demonstrator while another cop wields guns in both hands, while ordering demonstrators to stay back. Police are shown dispersing the crowd shoving demonstrators who are walking away, saying, “Leave or you ’re going to be fucking blasted,” and “I’m a Fed, motherfucker.”
After the protest, two FBI agents showed up at Josh Wolf's apartment and began asking questions about what he knew about the anarchist movement in the Bay Area. The agents asked him to turn over the full videotape. After consulting with his attorney, Wolf refused.
It is unusual for the federal government to be involved in prosecuting a case against a local demonstration. The Joint Terrorist Task Force took up the case on the pretext that the police allege that some demonstrators attempted to set fire to a police car (although the only damage to the police car was a broken taillight), and the government argues that because federal funds went to the San Francisco police, the alleged attack on the police car was an attack on federal property.
This is part of a larger trend for the federal government to use its new “anti-terrorism” powers to prosecute what would normally be local cases. Because the case is being held in front of a federal grand jury, California press shield laws, which would have protected Wolf, do not apply.
Grand juries are special courts that are conducted in secret to investigate crimes or charge defendants. The public, the press, and even defense attorneys are not allowed and testimony is secret. A person who testifies in front of a grand jury has very limited rights to refuse to answer questions. There is a long history of grand juries being used against the people. And there is a long history of activists refusing to cooperate with grand juries.
In an online interview with CNET, Josh Wolf described what he believes would happen if he went in front of the grand jury. “They would say, ‘Do you know this person, or this person, or this person?' They would then take all those people and call them into the grand jury, the same way the House Un-American Activities Committee did to create a list of Communists."
Wolf also argues in the interview that he could not surrender the video because he would be acting as an arm of law enforcement, damaging his relationships with sources.
Kevin Ryan, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who is responsible for Josh's imprisonment, has a history of using grand juries as an instrument of suppression against activists. In 2003, he rounded up former Black Panthers from all over the country to march them in front of a grand jury, supposedly to investigate Panther activities over 30 years in the past. According to news accounts, Ryan was acting in that case with jurisdiction under a terrorism provision of the USA Patriot Act even though the activities in question were not on federal property.
The political motivations of the government in going after Wolf's videotape and imprisoning him were further revealed when Wolf's attorney revealed that the videotape contained no footage of any vandalism to a police car. Wolf's attorney, Martin Garbus, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the footage does not depict the crimes in question, but features interviews with about 10 protesters who shed masks to speak in front of Wolf's camera.
“They expected he would safeguard them, which is what he is doing," Garbus told the Chronicle. “When they take off the masks and talk to this guy, they're assuming it will not be shown in a hostile place," such as a grand jury room.
Wolf's case has gotten widespread support from journalists and others. The Society for Professional Journalists gave Wolf a $30,000 grant—the largest ever given by the organization. SPJ President Dave Carlson said, “We have to make a stand someplace as the government attempts over and over to change the role of journalists as independent observers to arms of law enforcement.”
Reporters Without Borders issued a press release saying, “Sending this journalist to prison for protecting his material is both a serious violation of press freedom and a negation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Journalists are not supposed to be judicial auxiliaries or police auxiliaries.”
New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a leak naming a covert CIA agent, said, “I fear that the Josh Wolf case, my case and others like it are really going to have a chilling effect on the press and a chilling effect on the willingness of sources to come forward.”
Wolf's case is only one of a number of recent attacks on the press for stories that expose the Bush regime. Even the New York Times, a key institution of the liberal bourgeois establishment, was threatened with prosecution for treason when it revealed details of a secret government program to monitor bank records of thousands of Americans.
In a letter to supporters on his blog, Josh Wolf writes, “The disturbing worlds put forth by the likes of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley have swiftly become reality... The time to wake up has long since passed—quit hitting snooze and hope it's not too late. Whatever you do, don ’t succumb to the notion that you can't make a difference—that's just another form of cowardice. You can't even fail if you don't try, and you just might succeed.”
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