If freelance journalist Josh Wolf goes to jail for refusing to turn over what federal prosecutors say is video evidence of a crime that allegedly took place during a demonstration in July 2005, he’ll no doubt become a bigger cause célèbre in the lefty blogosphere.
But that doesn’t exactly make the prospect of jail time tantalizing. Wolf was hit with civil-contempt charges after refusing to testify before a federal grand jury and turn over video footage he’d obtained at a demonstration last summer in the Mission District against a G8 meeting in Scotland.
Some of the video has appeared publicly and Jeffrey Finigan, a prosecuting attorney involved in the case, saw it and wanted more. Prosecutors believe other portions of the tape, edited out by Wolf, contain evidence of protesters torching a cop car. Wolf denies that but says he’s standing on principle in withholding the tape. At the state level, Wolf is protected by California’s Shield Law, which is designed to protect the news-gathering process, but there is no federal equivalent.
Wolf attended a contempt hearing last week in federal court, where Judge William Alsup extended the issue to a future date, giving Finigan and Wolf’s East Bay attorney, José Luis Fuentes, time to iron out remaining questions about what protection Wolf might be afforded as a journalist. Wolf is also receiving help from the San Francisco office of the National Lawyers Guild and announced at a prehearing press conference that the Society of Professional Journalists recently gave $1,000 to his defense fund.
Wolf’s legal team has regularly lobbied the court to allow documents related to the case to be made publicly available, and several of them have been posted at Wolf’s Web site, Joshwolf.net. “We fought really hard to make all of those documents public,” Wolf said at the press conference. “It’s a situation where we have a lot of public information about it, which we’re lucky to have.”
Even if the contempt charges are tossed, Wolf could still decide to testify and turn over the tape with or without immunity from criminal charges that could be filed against him for any role he may have played in the alleged vandalism. At the press conference, Fuentes insisted the police department still has not stepped forward with any description of damages or subsequent costs reutf8g to the car.
The day of the press conference, Wolf’s story appeared on the blog Huffingtonpost.com via contributor Stephen Kaus. “The fact is that the effectiveness of the press is substantially diminished if every reporter is turned into a ‘surveillance camera’ as Wolf has claimed,” Kaus wrote. “Perhaps with exceptions for genuinely ‘terrible’ situations, the press cannot function if each crime-related story could turn into days of court testimony.” SFBG