Group points out threats to freedom of the press

CARACAS, Venezuela — An association representing newspapers from across the Americas raised concerns on Saturday that U.S. courts have unjustly jailed and fined journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.

Inter-American Press Association warned against “disturbing signs on the press freedom front” in the United States, but the group applauded the U.S. Congress for taking up a bill that would give federal protection to reporters asked by prosecutors to identify confidential sources.

In a report issued at its midyear meeting in Caracas, the IAPA criticized U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton for ordering former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to pay up to $5,000 a day for refusing to reveal her sources for stories about a criminal investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Locy was found in contempt in February after she refused to identify Justice Department sources for stories involving Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist under suspicion in the attacks. The fines are being delayed pending appeals.

“The ruling is unprecedented because it also prohibits her former employer, or anyone, from reimbursing her,” it said.

The Miami-based IAPA also cited concern that New York Times reporter James Risen was subpoenaed in January by a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., apparently to divulge sources who provided information for his 2006 book, “State of War.”

The book’s allegations describe an unsuccessful CIA effort to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program. Risen is fighting the subpoena.

“These latest cases show a growing trend by the federal government and private lawyers to force journalists to reveal their sources,” the IAPA said. “More than 40 reporters and media groups have been subpoenaed or questioned about their confidential sources, their notes and other aspects of their work in federal courts over the last few years.”

The Inter-American Press Association praised the House of Representatives for taking up a bill in October that would shield reporters from being forced by prosecutors to reveal their sources.

The IAPA argues the legislation is needed to keep the public informed about government corruption, but the Bush administration and other opponents say it could harm national security.

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