Christine Stuart photo
Two reporters, one from Rhode Island and one from Oakland, California used their stories to advocate for a federal shield law Saturday at the New England News Forum in Lowell, Mass.

Independent reporter and radio producer, Sarah Olson was the first to interview First Lieutenant Ehren Watada in May 2006, a month before he refused to deploy to Iraq.

Based on what Watada said in his interview with Olson, he was charged with four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and four counts of engaging in personal political speech. During the court-martial the Army prosecutors wanted Olson to substantiate the claims Watada made in his interview with her, but Olson refused to participate in the prosecution of Watada.

At the forum Saturday she said, “you can’t ask someone else to participate in personal political speech.” She said when the Army subpoenaed her they wanted her to testify that what she reported was accurate. The problem is if she had testified it would have set a bad precedent because “any journalist could have been seen as the investigative arm of the government,” she said. 

She said the imprisonment of Josh Wolf acts as another strong example of why we need a federal shield law. Wolf is the San Francisco video blogger who spent a record 7 1/2 months in federal prison for withholding his video of a protest from law enforcement. The police wanted to use the video to prosecute people that allegedly committed crimes during the protest, which by all accounts turned violent.

Jim Taricani, the broadcast journalist from WJAR-TV in Providence Rhode Island, knows what it’s like to be arrested. In 2001 Taricani aired a leaked videotape that showed Frank Corrente, a top aide to former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., taking a $1000 bribe from a government informant at City Hall. The videotape’s release violated a court order and a U.S. District Judge held him in civil contempt. Taricani spent six-months under house arrest while the court levied $85,000 in fines for every day he refused to reveal his source.

Christine Stuart photo

When the judge realized the civil contempt charge wasn’t going to phase Taricani, he hauled him back into court and was about to charge him with criminal contempt when his source revealed himself to the court.

Taricani said Saturday that the commercial press in concert with the government are going out of their way to limit “what we do in deciding what’s acceptable to report.”

Taricani said the $85,000 fine, plus litigation cost his former employer NBC about $600,000. He said he appreciated all the legal help NBC gave him, but in his new contract with his new employer it states the company will only be liable for a lawsuit up to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Taricani argued the protections for the press should be greater because “for every story that doesn’t get reported, it’s the public that loses.”

Connecticut passed a Shield Law last year and Massachusetts hopes to pass one this year. Click here for Connecticut’s version and herefor the draft Massachusetts version.