Media groups troubled by R.I. reporter’s conviction

Friday, November 19, 2004

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Several organizations that represent journalists say they will go to Congress to ask for a federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to name their sources after a local reporter was convicted of criminal contempt.

Jim Taricani, of WJAR, was found guilty of contempt by a federal judge yesterday for refusing to say who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe. He could get up to six months behind bars on the misdemeanor offense when he is sentenced next month.

“It is time for a federal shield law to protect reporters like Jim and those facing contempt of court rulings in other ongoing investigations,” said a statement from the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The organization said it would join others in asking the next Congress for such protection.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have some form of legislation shielding reporters from having to name their sources, but there is no federal law.

Hours after the verdict, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, said he would introduce legislation as soon as today that would create a federal shield law for the news media. The bill would protect reporters from being forced to provide information about their sources, and also protect notes, film, video or audio tapes, outtakes, photographs or negatives.

“No reporter should have to pay such a terribly high price for honestly and legally reporting the news,” WJAR said.

WJAR's parent company, NBC Universal, said in a statement: “We respect Jim's decision to honor his commitment to his source. Without being able to ensure the anonymity of their sources, journalists would be severely restricted in their essential work of exposing corruption and wrongdoing.”

Taricani, 55, is one of several journalists nationwide who are locked in First Amendment battles with the government over confidential sources.

In an article in today's Washington Post, Paul McMasters, First Amendment Center ombudsman, said prosecutors and judges damage the First Amendment when they try to force testimony.

“If a defendant can't get a fair trial, there's a remedy in law. There's no remedy if you censor a reporter,” the newspaper quoted McMasters as saying. “We have a heart transplant survivor prepared to go to jail to defend his principles — I wouldn't want to be this judge.”

The Providence newsman got in trouble over a video that shows an undercover FBI informant giving an envelope full of cash to a top aide to former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. Cianci and the aide, Frank Corrente, were convicted in a corruption case and are in prison.

The reporter broke no law by airing the tape in 2001, but a special prosecutor was appointed to find out who leaked it because the court had ordered no one to release any tapes connected to the case.

U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres had ordered Taricani to answer questions about the tape last fall, but Taricani refused, saying he had a First Amendment right to keep his sources confidential.

Last March, the judge found Taricani in civil contempt and imposed a $1,000-a-day fine until he identified his source. WJAR reimbursed Taricani $85,000 for the payments until the judge suspended the fine two weeks ago, saying it had not achieved its goal.

Commenting on Taricani's conviction, Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center said: “It's a very sad day for the First Amendment. It's very chilling on the part of a free press. He didn't steal documents or solicit anything.”

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement yesterday: “If journalists have to reveal their confidential sources, nobody will risk telling them anything. The privacy of sources is at the heart of freedom of expression.”

Taricani issued a statement
on WJAR's Web site yesterday following his conviction.

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