National Press Club

Former jailed police reporter to call for national shield law, 6 pm June 1

May 6, 2015 | By Rachel Oswald | rachelm.oswald@gmail.com

Brian Karem, a journalist who was once jailed for protecting a source, will moderate a National Press Club forum on June 1, where he will call for a federal shield law.

Brian Karem, a journalist who was once jailed for protecting a source, will moderate a National Press Club forum on June 1, where he will call for a federal shield law.

A local longtime journalist, who was jailed because he would not give up the identity of a source, will call for a federal shield law at a National Press Club forum at 6 p.m., Monday, June 1, in the Murrow Room.

The two-hour symposium is open to the public and is sponsored in part by the Club’s Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee. Tickets are $5 for Club members and $10 for nonmembers.

Brian Karem, the executive editor of two weekly Maryland newspapers, will moderate the event, which will feature roughly a dozen American journalists who have all gone the extra mile in protecting the identities of their anonymous sources -- facing down expensive fines and even serving jail time.

Karem, a 1991 recipient of the Club’s annual national Freedom of the Press Award, said the idea to organize next month’s event came as he was watching HBO’s “The Newsroom.” When the show’s protagonist, played by Jeff Daniels, was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to reveal who had provided him with sensitive documents, Karem said he was bothered by the way the show failed to accurately portray what the whole experience had been like.

“I won't wear orange to this day because of my experience,” said Karem, who 25 years ago was jailed for refusing to name a confidential source.

In March 1989, Karem was working in San Antonio, Texas, as a police reporter for an NBC affiliate, KMOL-TV. During an overnight shift, Karem caught the story of a white police officer who was killed with his own weapon following a struggle with two young Hispanic men.

Karem was able to land an interview with one of the suspects, who confessed to the shooting but told him it was in self-defense because the officer was acting physically aggressive. A subsequent autopsy of the officer’s body revealed the presence of cocaine and heroin.

“Of course, I was immediately subpoenaed for my notes and the tape,” Karem said. “We gave over some tape but I refused to give my notes and refused to name the people who helped facilitate the jailhouse interview.”

Karem insisted on his First Amendment protections all the way to the Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear his case. In summer 1990, Karem, then just 29, ended up spending two weeks in jail.

“At that point, two of the sources had already come forward because they were members of law enforcement," Karem said. "The third source came forward because he had moved away from Texas.”

In the years since, Karem has testified in a number of states and local jurisdictions about the need for stronger legal protections for reporters and has campaigned for a national shield law. Though Texas has a shield law, it was not enough to protect Karem because the case was a criminal one.

In organizing next month’s symposium, Karem said he was struck by how similar the experiences were of his fellow “jailbird” reporters.

“It’s funny that everyone who put us in jail told us how much they supported the First Amendment, just not in our case,” he said, adding he was also troubled by how “little solidarity” other news publications showed to him and the other jailed reporters during their time of need. “We don't seem to come together on these issues.”

The symposium is sponsored by The National Press Club Journalism Institute, The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, The First Amendment Coalition, Expose Facts.Org, The Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

For more information about the event, please contact Nicole Hoffman at nhoffman@press.org.