As Sunshine Week Dawns, At Least 16 Reporters Are In Legal Battles

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(AP) A federal judge sentences a TV reporter to six months of home confinement. His crime? Refusing to reveal a confidential source.

In a trend that is making the news media nervous, a small but growing number of reporters are ensnared in the legal system for defying judicial demands to disclose where they got their information. At least 16 reporters and 14 news organizations are involved in legal fights in courthouses from New York and Washington to San Francisco.

“I’ve gone through 35 years of files on this issue and by almost any measure, things have gotten out of control,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The squeeze on reporters is coming from two directions: prosecutors trying to plug government leaks and private attorneys suing on behalf of clients who contend their reputations were tarnished by unidentified government sources.

Facing what they regard as hostility in the courts, the news media are turning to another branch of government for help. Proposed shield laws in Congress would restore the protection that reporters feel they’re losing in the courtroom.

Too often journalists don’t make the point with readers and viewers “that we’re working for them,” said Deanna Sands, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and managing editor of the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. “The reason we fight so diligently on the issues of access and the protection of sources of information is that we know how important it is to have a free flow of information.”

Media-sponsored campaigns such as Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday, are efforts to tell the public about a need for transparency in government. Spearheaded by the AP and more than 50 other news outlets, journalism groups, universities, and the American Library Association, the effort will include stories, editorials, and cartoons on the subject.

In a separate initiative, APME is launching community-forum pilot programs at four newspapers in which the public and the press will exchange views on privacy issues.

One flashpoint for the current faceoff between reporters and judges was a federal appeals court decision in Chicago in 2003 that journalists should be subject to subpoenas just like any other witnesses.

Twenty-six media organizations filed court papers calling the ruling “a stunning break” from long-standing precedent.

More trouble followed.

A federal judge found Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine in contempt. They are refusing to disclose their sources to prosecutors who are trying to find who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of an undercover CIA officer.

Five reporters, including one from The Associated Press, were found in contempt for refusing to name their sources in a lawsuit by former nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee. Lee alleges government leakers named him as a suspect in an investigation of possible theft of secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In Rhode Island, TV reporter Jim Taricani is serving his home confinement sentence for refusing to say who gave him a videotape showing a former Providence city hall official taking a bribe from an undercover FBI informant.

In a bright spot for the media, a judge ruled The New York Times had a right to keep its phone records confidential in certain instances in order to protect sources.

The ruling came as a Chicago grand jury looked into the leak of information to the Times about a planned FBI raid on an Islamic charity.

The leaking of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame is a story that has received wide publicity, but the issue of reporters and their relationship to the courts extends everywhere as the media go about gathering the news.

In Colorado, parents whose daughter was slain a decade ago say reporters for the AP and The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel have information important to their civil rights lawsuit against authorities.

A federal judge threw out subpoenas against the two news organizations and a federal appeals court upheld the decision. Now the parents are asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

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