by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
On Feb. 5, the court martial trial of Army Lt. Ehren Watada will begin at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington. Watada has refused to deploy to Iraq, citing his belief that the Iraq war is illegal and contrary to the Army’s Law of Land Warfare. It is not unusual for the Army to prosecute those who refuse an order, but in Watada’s case the Army also is prosecuting him for talking to reporters about his decision and rationale. The charges of “conduct unbecoming of an officer” relate to his interviews with reporters and carry a potential four-year prison term. It has been more than 40 years since the Army has prosecuted an officer for making statements to the press.
To prosecute Watada, the Army has issued subpoenas to four of the journalists who interviewed him. While Watada’s comments have been widely published and clearly attributed to him, the Army is threatening six-month prison terms for any journalist who refuses to testify against Lt. Watada.
Sarah Olsen is a free-lance journalist who wrote an article about Watada for the Web site Truthout.org and has been subpoenaed to testify against Watada.
“It’s a reporter’s job to report the news,” Sarah said. “It’s not a reporter’s job to participate in the prosecution of sources. Once you involve a reporter in prosecution, you turn that reporter into the investigative arm of the government.”
Others in the media agree. “Trying to force a reporter to testify at a court-martial sends the wrong signal to the media and the military,” said James Crawley, president of Military Reporters and Editors. “One of the hallmarks of American journalism, as documented in the Bill of Rights and defended by our armed services, is a clear separation of the press and the government. Using journalists to help the military prosecute its case seems like a serious breach of that wall.”
In the United States today, reporters have no legal right to refuse to testify against their sources. If we all agree that our democracy depends on a free and independent press, then what effect does it have on our democracy when every reporter is also a possible government investigator? I think we can agree that would have a chilling effect on both the press and our democracy.
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