National Press Club

Journalists who were jailed by the feds call for federal shield law

June 5, 2015 | By Varun Saxena | vsaxenaster@gmail.com

Brian Karem, standing, moderates a panel of journalists at a National Press Club Freedom of the Press event, June 1, 2015. The journalists all spent time in jail for doing their jobs. Panelists from left to right are Josh Wolf, Brad Stone, Lisa Abraham, Vanessa Leggett, Judith Miller (obscured) Brad Stone, Roxana Kopetman and Libby Averyt.

Brian Karem, standing, moderates a panel of journalists at a National Press Club Freedom of the Press event, June 1, 2015. The journalists all spent time in jail for doing their jobs. Panelists from left to right are Josh Wolf, Brad Stone, Lisa Abraham, Vanessa Leggett, Judith Miller (obscured) Brad Stone, Roxana Kopetman and Libby Averyt.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Several former journalists who went to jail to protect their sources from the U.S. government decried the lack of transparency in the Obama administration and called for a national shield law so other reporters won’t be detained in the future.

“No one should have to go through what we went through in order to get information and disseminate it to the public,” said Brian Karem, the event’s moderator. Karem went to jail four times to protect a confidential source in story about a San Antonio murder case.

All of the former journalists said federal protection would embolden reporters and end reliance on a patchwork of state shield laws. For instance, TV reporter Brad Stone was jailed for refusing to reveal information about the inner workings of a Detroit drug gang because Michigan’s 1918 shield law only applied to print reporters. He said that the law was broadened in scope following his incident.

The former journalists also complained that the Obama administration was secretive.

A White House press staffer wouldn’t reveal the length of the building power outage over the phone, said Karem.

“When you take away our ability to gather information, what news are you to have left?” Karem asked.

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail for 85 days for refusing to reveal a source who leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent, said she’s been operating like a drug dealer.

Like many of the other jailed, journalists Miller was accused of going to jail in order to gain fame and advance her career. The Pulitzer Prize winner called for more unity among reporters.

In fact, national media coverage helped secure the release of many of the reporters, including Vanessa Leggett, who said the authorities relented after she spent 168 days in jail because they didn’t like the negative media attention her jailing was bringing to south Texas.

The former journalists also talked about what life was like behind bars. For example, the putrid jail food was a common complaint.

Stories of jail fights were also recounted, as well uncomfortable prison cells and the lack of windows.

Blogger Josh Wolf spent the most time in jail, more than seven months in a federal detention center. Wolf stressed the importance of creating a shield law that covers members of the nontraditional media such as himself.

They also shared humorous stories about their time in detention.

Lisa Abraham went to jail for refusing to testify before a grand-jury investigation into a county official whom she had interviewed. She managed to write 15 articles in 22 days by quickly mopping the jail floor so that she could access the payphone.

All of the former journalists said they were shaken by the experience of going to jail, but Abraham said it only reinforced her conviction that she’s in the right profession.

"It gives you the reputation that people can trust you, and people want to talk to journalists that they can trust," Abraham said. "That’s the bottom line.”