By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
A San Francisco blogger who spent nearly eight months in jail for refusing to testify about an anarchists' demonstration was released yesterday after turning over a videotape of the protest and posting it on his Web site.
Josh Wolf, 24, also answered two questions from prosecutors, after striking a deal that ends the longest contempt-of-court term ever served by someone in the U.S. media.
"I'm completely satisfied with the resolution," Wolf said by phone from California one hour after being released. "There's a very large problem with forcing a reporter to act as an investigator for a government prosecution. . . . It's absolutely a victory."
Since the video captured no violent incidents, he said, "it wasn't worth being a martyr for no purpose."
Martin Garbus, Wolf's attorney, said he had offered prosecutors a similar compromise in November. "The question is, why did it take this long to persuade the U.S. attorney?" Garbus said. "They were getting embarrassed." The U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco, which agreed to drop the contempt charge after a mediation session Monday, declined to comment.
The case sparked a First Amendment debate over whether Wolf is a journalist and whether he deserved protection for the video he shot of the 2005 protest against a G-8 summit meeting in Scotland, since he made no explicit promises of confidentiality. Wolf sold other parts of the tape to local television stations and posted those portions online. In reaching the agreement with prosecutors, Wolf backed off his original position that he would not turn over the footage.
A viewing of the video leaves unclear why Wolf fought so hard to protect it. Three protesters in hooded sweat shirts and kerchiefs partly hiding their faces are seen talking to bystanders, followed by a handful of protesters who make no effort to hide their identity. Demonstrators are seen marching with such banners as "Destroy the War Machine," and in one case dragging newspaper boxes into the street to block traffic. At one point they surround a fallen colleague on the sidewalk, and a police officer walks over and tells everyone to stand back.
Asked if he was worried about identifying protesters, Wolf said: "I could not answer that question before the grand jury. There were various promises made, both directly and indirectly." He declined to elaborate.
Wolf said he believed that prosecutors had him subpoenaed and ultimately jailed "to send a message to the press and public that they will stop at nothing" to compel grand jury testimony.
During the protest, San Francisco police officer Peter Shields had his skull fractured by a hooded assailant with a pipe or baseball bat. Wolf said he was 30 yards away at the time but did not see the attack because he was taping a scuffle between police and another protester.
As an alternative to testifying, Wolf answered two questions in writing. He said he did not know whom Shields was attempting to take into custody at the time he was struck. Wolf also said he did not see anyone throw or shoot anything at a police car during the demonstration, nor did he learn such information from another source. Prosecutors said they reserve the right to subpoena him again, which Garbus called a face-saving claim.
Wolf, whose mother mounted a media campaign on his behalf, used yesterday's settlement to push for a national law protecting journalists from being forced to testify about confidential sources. More than 30 states and the District have shield laws. He said on his blog, Joshwolf.net, that the case "further reinforces the clear and present need for a federal shield law, and I am optimistic that these recent developments will help to pave the way for its passage by Congress."
Asked how he coped with being incarcerated, Wolf said: "It was difficult at times, easier at others. You get into a routine, something breaks that routine, and you're very sensitive to that."
Prosecutors said in an earlier court filing that Wolf, who is not affiliated with any news outlet, was "simply a person with a video camera" and that his resistance to testifying was "apparently fueled by his anointment as a journalistic martyr."
Was he acting as a journalist in videotaping the demonstration?
"It was journalism to the extent that I went out to capture the truth and present it to the public," Wolf said. "It has nothing to do with whether or not I'm employed by a corporation or I carry a press pass."