Josh Wolf imprisoned in probe of anarchists?

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(Josh Wolf is a freelance journalist and anarchist. He has been jailed for refusing to turn over videotapes of a protest being investigated by a federal grand jury. Online Journalism Review has written about his case; here is a bit more from Wikipedia; and from his own site. On Friday, December 1, 2006, I ran a reminder of his incarceration. I will write about his case every Friday until he is freed. What will you do? Tom Abate, San Leandro, California; aka MiniMediaGuy).

I recently got a letter from Josh Wolf. It was handwritten and dated just before Christmas. He was responding to the hardcopy of a blog entry that I had mailed him in December. In his letter he says that although he has been jailed for refusing to bear witness to the burning of a police car –  the police car was never burned; the police report mentions only damage to its lights; and his tapes bear no evidence of arson. So why is he being imprisoned? Wolf writes:

“This investigation is not about investigating a crime but is instead an attempt to gather information and the identities of those engaged in civil dissent in the Bay Area. Just as the FBI sought to catalog communists during the 1950s under the auspices of the Cold War, it is my suspicion that my jailing is part of a broad initiative to identify anarchists and intimidate both journalists and their contacts.”

That is the only sensible explanation for why Josh Wolf has been imprisoned for about five month. The feds think he can name names and show faces of the anarchist movement. I’m glad to get this letter because I had come to this same surmise myself. But Wolf would know better.

I’ll look at the anarchist movement on future Fridays. But for now rather than argue over whether Wolf is really a journalist (because he is a freelancer who is sympathetic to the protestors he covers) let’s ask a different question: should the federal government have the power to imprison any American for an indefinite period to force him or her to testify against people who are not suspects in a specific crime?

To give the feds this power of coercion would be to declare open season on witch hunts. But I said that incorrectly. The federal authorities have already taken that power. Josh Wolf has been jailed to compel his testimony. This is not about getting his videotapes of a crime (the burning of a police car) that never occurred, or at least wasn’t videotaped by him. As he writes:

“I have not only been ordered to turn over my footage but have also been ordered to testify before the federal grand jury — a demand the U.S. attorney said he would not rescind (even) if I were to agree to turn over the tapes.”

Earlier in the week the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, Kevin Ryan, resigned. It is Ryan’s office that has sought Wolf’s imprisonment. A story about Ryan’s resignation made no mention of Wolf’s case. A followup report today mentioned that other U.S. attorneys had either resigned or been asked to resign by President Bush. This second story is about the reappointment process. Again there is no mention of Josh Wolf.

Does Ryan’s departure signal less interest in the anarchist probe? Will Josh Wolf be released soon? Or does Josh Wolf just sit in jail while the dust settles? This is so unfair it hurts.