By: Karim Mostafa
Two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters have been ordered to jail by a Fulton County, Ga., judge for not revealing the sources used in a story on Richard Jewell, who was first suspected and later cleared of involvement in a bombing during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Reporters Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz were ordered to jail for civil contempt, which requires them to be held in jail until they reveal their sources.
The Journal-Constitution, a Cox Newspapers Inc. property, yesterday blocked the jailings by filing a notice of appeal, according to Peter C. Canfield, the company’s lawyer. He estimates a year will pass before a state appeals court addresses this case.
Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Olympics, filed a libel suit against the Atlanta daily in 1997, claiming libel “in a series of false and defamatory articles which portrayed him as an individual with a bizarre employment history and an aberrant personality who was likely guilty.”
Fulton County State Court judge John Mather has requested the names of the sources behind the stories prior to Jewell’s suit going to trial. Canfield said last year the newspaper filed a summary judgment motion that asserts the sources are irrelevant due to the accuracy of the reporting. But Mather, on March 16, gave the reporters 60 days to disclose their sources. Journal-Constitution editor Ron Martin told The Associated Press that the paper would challenge the civil contempt ruling.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., says newspapers have had a very high success rate in defending their reporters, but this case is of particular interest due to the lack of precedents testing the Georgia shield law, passed in 1990.
Kirtley also remarked that, in libel cases, judges have rarely resorted to coercive measures in pursuit of reporters’ sources since more effective measures are at their disposal.
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