WASHINGTON – The fight for the First Amendment and New York Times reporter James Risen isn’t over.
“The main thing that gets to me is that I realize I don’t deserve all this,” Risen said. “But I also know that it’s really not about me,it’s about some basic issues that affect all journalists and all Americans.”
Since first being subpoenaed in 2008,Risen has refused to reveal his source for a section of his book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration” that detailed a failed CIA operation in Iran. The George W. Bush administration suspected his source was former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling,who was arrested in 2011 under President Barack Obama and charged with violating the Espionage Act.
In June,the Supreme Court rejected Risen’s appeal of the subpoena,and he faces jail time or a hefty fine if the Obama administration compels him to testify.
Journalism organization representatives gathered at the National Press Club Thursday to support Risen and what his case has come to represent: protecting the freedom of the press.
Earlier in the day,the groups delivered a petition to the Department of Justice asking that it halt legal action against the reporter,who was not involved in the effort.
The petition,signed by 100,000 people,said that forcing Risen to reveal his sources would be an “assault on freedom of the press.” Twenty Pulitzer Prize winners also wrote statements in support of Risen.
The recent crackdown on national security leaks also changes the way journalists do their jobs,Committee to Protect Journalists Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch said. In the face of the Obama administration’s eight whistleblower prosecutions under the Espionage Act,more than twice the number by all previous administrations combined,sources are less willing to talk. This environment creates a “chilling effect” on journalists’ ability to pursue government-accountability investigative reporting.
“It is much harder for the U.S. to be taken seriously when it advocates for press freedom and journalistic rights abroad when they are abridged at home,” Radsch said.
The petition is only a first step to increasing public awareness and protecting journalists,Legal Defense Director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Gregg Leslie said. Journalists need a “meaningful” federal shield law that will protect them from having to reveal their sources. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill called the Free Flow of Information Act in September 2013,but it has yet to go to the floor. The House has not looked at a bill in the past year.
“One of the great things people in power can do is enact limits on its own powers,” Leslie said.
Although Leslie said the petition and a potential law will provide an incremental change to the situation,he also said there is no “golden ticket” to solve everything when it comes to national security concerns and journalists’ rights to report about government activities.
“It all helps,and none of it’s perfect,” Leslie said.
The Newspaper Guild-CWA announced Wednesday that Risen would be given the Herbert Block Freedom Award,named after the Washington Post’s longtime editorial cartoonist,for upholding the principles of a free press.
Risen,who joked while taking questions that “you’re going to get me in trouble with my lawyers,” said he was happy to continue the fight for the rights of journalists like him and his son,who stood near the back of the room. Tom Risen is a technology and business reporter for U.S. News & World Report.
“The real reason I’m doing this is for the future of journalism,” Risen said. “My oldest son,Tom,standing right there,is a journalist and I want to make sure that the same protections that I’ve had in my career are there for the future reporters of America.”
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.