To its credit, the Obama administration was quick and forceful in its condemnation this week of the Afghan government's expulsion of New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg, who had angered the Karzai government by reporting that high-level Afghan officials were considering bypassing electoral procedures to establish an interim government--in effect, to stage a coup.
But the United States' full-throated support of journalistic independence abroad may be unconvincing to at least one journalist at home. I'm referring to James Risen, another New York Times reporter who, ironically, is facing contempt of court sanctions and possible imprisonment for defying the U.S. government in the same way that Rosenberg defied the Afghan government.
Both Rosenberg and Risen got into legal trouble by refusing to disclose confidential sources. Rosenberg, in a meeting in the Afghan Attorney General's office, was questioned about the sources -- all unnamed -- for his article about the coup discussions. He refused to identify his sources and was ordered to leave the country the next day.
Risen has been subpoenaed to testify about his unnamed sources for reporting on U.S. covert actions against Iran (which appeared in a book Risen wrote, not in the Times). Risen has refused to name his sources on first amendment grounds. His appeals now exhausted, Risen awaits a final decision by Justice Department prosecutors on whether, and when, to call him to testify (against Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA employee who is being tried for leaking classified information to Risen).
To be sure, the situations are not precisely analogous. Rosenberg was expelled because the Karzai government wanted to silence him and intimidate other reporters pursuing unflattering stories (while U.S. prosecutors are pressuring Risen in order to secure a conviction and deter other would-be leakers in the intelligence community). Nonetheless, the precipitating event for Rosenberg's punishment -- his forced and abrupt departure from Kabul -- was his refusal to reveal his sources, the same as in Risen's case.
The contrast between the U.S. government's positions on the plights of Rosenberg, on one hand, and Risen, on the other, is important because the gravity of first amendment issues is often clearest in foreign countries that, by history and custom, are hostile to principles of free speech and the rule of law. In that setting it is easy to see that complaints about a journalist's reliance on anonymous sources, and demands for the disclosure of those sources, are just a cover for government officials' true purpose: censorship.
In the U.S., prosecutors' may be more subtle, their objectives more obscure. But calling on a journalist to name her confidential sources remains a time-honored strategy for creating doubt about the accuracy of a news story that government officials dislike, yet know to be true. Which is why the Justice Department's relentless pursuit of Risen, and its refusal to recognize a qualified, first amendment-based, testimonial privilege for journalists, are serious mistakes.
Now would be a good time for President Obama to correct those mistakes.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a nonprofit dedicated to freedom of speech and government transparency. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of FAC's Board of Directors.