James Risen, a New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, is facing possible jail time for refusing to testify against a former CIA operative that allegedly contributed information about the United States’ failed mission in Iran to his 2006 book, State of War. Since 2006, the US Justice Department has been trying to obtain testimony from Risen, to reveal the identity of his confidential source. Risen tried multiple legal options to avoid testifying against his source, who is believed to be Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent.
On June 2, 2014, the US Supreme Court refused to review a lower court’s order that requires Risen to testify against Sterling. While his incarceration can begin within the next few months, according to The Guardian, he decided to speak up about his battle against the U.S. government.
“I was nervous for a long time, but they’ve been after me for six years so now I try to ignore it,” said Risen in a piece by Maureen Dowd on the New York Times.
Risen is believes that it was hypocritical for US President Barack Obama and US Attorney General, Eric Holder, to condemn the arrest of two journalists in Ferguson, Mo. In a public remark, President Obama emphasized that “here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” Attempts to prosecute Risen started during the Bush administration, when the Justice Department tried to put him in jail through the Espionage Act. The Obama administration continued to put pressure on Risen to name Sterling as the main source of his book in 2006. He named President Obama “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
On August 14, major press freedom organizations submitted a petition that contained over 100,000 signatures to the US Justice Department. The petition asks the US government to halt all legal actions against Risen. Another joint statement released by fourteen Pulitzer Prize winners also weighs in to demand the Obama administration to stop its attempts to prosecute Risen.
“I urge the Attorney General not to prosecute Mr. Risen for standing by his word to a source,” said Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the joint statement. “Prosecuting Mr. Risen would not only send a chilling message to other journalists seeking to continue our country’s great tradition of freedom of the press. It would diminish America’s reputation in the eyes of the world as a place that values truth.”
If prosecuted, Risen would become the first journalist to be put behind bars since former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to testify about a source before a federal grand jury in 2005.
Press freedom may be under siege elsewhere. On July 26, Hong Kong’s popular pro-democracy news website, House News, announced its closure after Tony Tsoi, its founder, cited changing political atmosphere and growing concerns for the safety of advocates as the reasons for House News’s closure.