Josh Wolf free but citizen journalism under threat

I'm very happy to see that Josh Wolf was set free on April 3rd, and I'm proud to say that this blog featured the 'Free Josh Wolf' banner. However, I've just had a quick scan of Josh's blog and I have a different view about the most important lesson of his imprisonment. His focus is the legal situation of journalists in the States, whereas I see more of a threat to the web as a participative space. The internet has become a tool for social impact, and the most important thing to defend is its use by ordinary citizens.

josh wolf

Josh refused to turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury investigating a July, 2005 anti-G8 demonstration which he had covered on his blog. He was never been convicted of a crime. He was held on civil contempt in an effort to coerce him to testify and turn over his unpublished material to a federal grand jury. On February 6th he became longest-incarcerated journalist in U.S. history for refusal to comply with a subpoena on journalistic principles.

The immediate scandal of Josh's case is summed up by Dan Gillmor (a prominent advocate for citizen journlism). In short, the federal governmant blagged jurisdiction his case "using a pretext so flimsy that it would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious — it says there’s a federal case because federal tax dollars helped pay for a city police car that was damaged in the demonstration". In fact, it should have been handled at state level, where he would have had protection from imprisonment. So after his release Josh said

Much of the debate has focused on whether or not I am a journalist; this question is nothing more than a distraction and a red herring...The question that needs to be asked is not "Is Josh Wolf a journalist?" but should journalists deserve the same protections in federal court as those afforded them in state courts.

I think the threat is in the question 'who is a journalist'. It's clear that this will be used to divide the deserving from the undeserving. The space for ordinary citizens to use the web to report social issues is already being squeezed. See, for example, the recent French law on filming acts of violence - the implications of which are spelled out by Sami Ben Gharbia :

France’s Constitutional Council passed the Sarkozy law which criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. During the parliamentary debate, government representatives said the law is meant to target a practice known as “happy slapping”, defined in Wikipedia as "a fad in which an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault (commonly with a camera phone or a smartphone)." In France, therefore, the filming and broadcasting of acts of violence such as the riots which took place in the Paris suburbs during the month of October and November, 2005, will henceforth be the prerogative of accredited journalists only. Under this new law, any other eyewitness who records acts of violence, or anyone who makes the content available online (the operator of a web site, for instance) could face up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of nearly US$100,000. In an ironic twist, the law was announced on March 3, 2007, exactly 16 years after amateur videographer George Holliday filmed African-American Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The officers' eventual acquittal in 1992 sparked off riots in the city.

So one way the clampdown comes is in the name of tackling antisocial behaviour. Historically, we've seen this tendency before. The original Public Order Act in the UK was introduced in the 1930's in the name of dealing with Moseley's Blackshirts (the British Fascist movement) - but in the subsequent decades it was used over and over again to suppress civil disobedience and left-wing protests.

My interest is how to defend the use of the internet by people who aren't (as the French law says) 'professional journalists'. Talking to experts on the role of Human Rights Defenders it seems to me that journalists are the ones who get the most attention and protection, both through professional organisations and because global society broadly accepts the role of 'journalist' as something socially necessary. (Note: I don't wish to minimise the specific threat to journalists where that exists e.g. in overtly repressive regimes). But what about all those other segments of society who are learning to use the net to report on social problems that are critical to them?

So, for me, the issue raised by Josh's case is the need to step back from the label 'journalist' and look at why that's seen as a necessary role in civil society. In Josh's first post after being freed he quoted a US Judge Douglas (from a press freedom case in the 1970's) who said "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring fulfillment to the public’s right to know". Surely this role is being massively and positively expanded by the blogosphere (one only has to look at Global Voices as an example) and in general by the participative internet (see for example my earlier post UCLA Student Tasered: is YouTube a human rights tool? ). Do we follow the citizen journalism of Dan Gillmor and say "While Wolf’s sympathies may well have been with the demonstrators, he was engaging in journalism when he shot that footage". Or do we just dump the category of journalist all together and find other terms for our right to participate and to be heard? In harsh times, is it enough to be reporters, or do we need to become defenders? Josh quotes the same Judge Douglas as saying

“As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. It is a power to suffocate both people and causes. Those in power, whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it. Now that the fences of the law and the tradition that protected the press are broken down, the people are the victims".