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Legal Pressure Seen Affecting News Reports


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Legal Pressure Seen Affecting News Reports

By SETH SUTEL, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK - With several reporters facing possible jail sentences and fines, there are signs mounting legal pressure on journalists to reveal confidential sources is having a chilling effect on newsgathering.

Clark Hoyt, the Washington editor of Knight Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper company, said he has seen two examples in recent weeks of sources declining to provide information after initially agreeing to do so confidentially.

The sources feared they might be investigated, or that their identities could be discovered from a subpoena of the reporter's phone records, Hoyt said.

"I think there is no question that there is greater anxiety among sources about talking to journalists," he said.

The ability of reporters to gather sensitive information confidentially received another challenge Thursday, when a federal judge approved an unusual request by bioterror expert Steven Hatfill to question journalists who wrote stories relating to the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Hatfill is suing Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) and other government officials who named him as a "person of interest" in the attacks, which killed five people. Hatfill says his reputation has been ruined, and he is seeking damages.

As part of the arrangement, the Justice Department (news - web sites) will distribute waiver forms to members of its staff next month, allowing them to release journalists from pledges of confidentiality. Hatfill's attorneys would then question reporters who wrote about the attacks using information they may have received from confidential sources.

Similar waivers have been used by prosecutors in a separate investigation into the disclosure of the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA (news - web sites) operative. Investigators suspect her name may have been revealed as retribution by the government against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for writing a newspaper opinion column criticizing President Bush (news - web sites)'s claim that Iraq (news - web sites) had sought uranium in Niger.

Some reporters gave testimony after government officials released them from pledges of confidentiality, but Judith Miller of The New York Times and Time magazine's Matt Cooper were both found in contempt of court for declining to disclose their sources. Appeals are pending, but the two face possible penalties including jail time.

Use of the waivers has frightened at least one source for a Hearst reporter. Eve Burton, the general counsel for Hearst Corp., which owns 12 newspapers across the country, said a reporter's source recently warned he would never release the journalist from a pledge of confidentiality.

"My response back as a lawyer is that you ought to be sure that this is a story you're willing to go to jail for," Burton said.

There are other recent examples of pressure on reporters to divulge sources. Five reporters, including one from The Associated Press, were held in contempt last summer in a civil case brought against the government by former nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee (news - web sites). Fines were levied; payments were suspended pending appeals.

Also, reporter Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV in Rhode Island was found in contempt for refusing to say how he obtained a videotape showing a Providence official taking a bribe. Taricani is being assessed a fine of $1,000 per day.

The ruling comes as former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. serves five years in prison for masterminding a scheme that took bribes in exchange for tax breaks, favors and city jobs.

Much of the recent legal action against reporters has occurred in federal courts, where there is no clear law protecting journalists from revealing confidential sources. Such "shield" laws exist in 31 states.

"The press simply cannot perform its intended role if its sources of information — particularly information about the government — are cut off," Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote Oct. 10 in a statement with company CEO Russell T. Lewis, calling for a federal shield law.

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