Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blogging All the Way to Jail
Blogging All the Way to Jail
Josh Wolf is the first blogger to be targeted by federal authorities for not cooperating with a grand jury. Are the courts trying to send a message to new media?

Before there was YouTube's crush of do-it-yourself video online, Josh Wolf was busy taking media into his own hands. As one of the Internet's earliest videobloggers, Wolf thrust himself onto the front lines of citizen journalism, uploading his politically spiked, home-grown content onto While bypassing old media gatekeepers — like editors and programming schedules — Wolf, 24, gained unprecedented access to the Web's global stage, but he also fast won notoriety for his attempts to democratize the media. Last year, Wolf earned the wrath of Al Gore's youth cable channel, Current TV, when he criticized the new station's hiring practices along with its video submission policies on his blog. In protest, he started the Rise Up! Network, a non-profit alternative media site, where anyone can feature his or her own video work and retain exclusive rights.

Now the videoblogger is enmeshed in a new digital media controversy. On Tuesday, Wolf was thrown into federal prison for refusing to testify before a U.S. grand jury and for failing to hand over unpublished video footage he shot during a raucous clash on the streets between San Francisco police officers and anti-G8 protesters last year. Wolf posted some of the video on his blog, and some clips were aired on TV newscasts that later paid Wolf for the footage. But the feds are demanding to see everything that wasn't made public. They allege that the unused portion of Wolf's video may show the patrol car being set afire — part of a federal crime, the government asserts. Wolf denies there is an attempted arson on his videotape. The feds say they have jurisdiction over the case because the police car is partly U.S. government property since the S.F.P.D. receives federal anti-terrorism money.

"Not only does this logic seem silly," Wolf told TIME in June after receiving his final subpoena, "but if unchallenged it will have a deleterious effect on the state protections afforded to many journalists, both independent and those that are part of the established media." Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court rejected Wolf's arguments, and declared him in contempt of court. So he is now being held in a detention center in Dublin, Calif., where he could remain until next July when the grand jury expires, or earlier if his attorneys can convince the court his custody becomes punitive because he won't turn over the court-ordered materials. Wolf maintains that as a freelance videographer and blogger, he is an independent journalist protected under the state's generous shield law, which protects journalists' confidential, unpublished material obtained while reporting. He adamantly resists what he sees as the government's attempt to force him to identify various activists captured in his tapes. "It goes against every moral fiber in my body to sit back and out people for their political beliefs," he said, adding that if this interpretation stands, it could "kill politically contentious journalism in America." This could also be a landmark case, since Wolf is the first blogger to be targeted by federal authorities for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury. "The courts have sent a clear message to journalists, bloggers, vloggers, and all citizens that the U.S. government will and can with the help of the federal courts make every person in the U.S. an investigative arm of the government," according to Jose Luis Fuentes, Wolf's attorney. When asked if do-it-yourself media creators should be afforded the same legal protections that conventional journalists have, Fuentes replied, "All newsgatherers are theoretically protected by the federal and state First Amendment. In the context of free speech and newsgathering, all journalists are working for a democratic society whose very existence depends upon the free flow of information without government intrusion. Any attempt to draw a distinction is divisive."

The legal musing has a tinge of irony since Wolf and other do-it-yourself content creators are typically disdainful of corporate-controlled media. Yet Wolf is now voluntarily taking the legal heat for amateurs and professional scribes alike. And he might be wishing he could benefit from mainstream media's deep pockets. His legal bills exceed $75,000, according to his attorney. Fees from other lawyers are piling up, too. His mother is keeping up his blog, where donations are being solicited to offset his escalating legal costs. Mainstream civic and media interests like the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyer's Guild, the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board, and San Francisco's Board of Supervisors have all voiced support for Wolf. The blogosphere, by contrast, hasn't yet elicited a rousing cheer for Wolf, with a few exceptions like the Huffington Post and Silicon Valley Watcher. Neither the popular political blog The Daily Kos nor, a site for the participatory media movement, covered Wolf's jailing.

Fuentes, Wolf's attorney, advises citizen journalists and new media creators to guard their privacy by developing protocols to protect their unedited material and sources. He suggests using paper shredders and having record-retention policies, and dissuades grassroots content creators from talking to law officials. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit that advocates for the public interest and digital rights, is more pointed by suggesting that do-it-yourself media creators should use technology to help conceal their real identities online. EFF encourages the use of anonymous blogging tools like "" and "," which do just that. Other digital privacy tips can be found on the EFF website — under the title: "How to Blog Safely." One can only wonder what the jailed videoblogger would think of such a lack of transparency.