January 17, 2007
Sarah Olson was on a big story, and now she has become a part of it.
The freelance journalist was one of the first reporters to cover the story of Lt. Ehren Watada, who is facing a court martial for publicly refusing to deploy to Iraq. Watada has denounced the war as “illegal and unjust.”
Now the army has subpoenaed Olson and another reporter to testify at Watada’s trial.
Olson finds herself in a bind.
“Being forced to choose between my personal liberty and my integrity is not a choice I should be forced to make,” she says. “If I don’t cooperate, I will be facing a felony contempt of court charge with a penalty of up to six months in prison and/or up to a fine of $500.”
The other reporter is Gregg Kakesako of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. When I called him to discuss the case, he said, “I don’t have any comment.”
Groups that protect journalists and writers have expressed their dismay at the Pentagon’s tactic.
“If Olson and Kakesako respond to these subpoenas by testifying, they will essentially be participating in the prosecution of their source,” wrote Hannah Pakula and Larry Siems of the PEN American Center in a January 5 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Such a role compromises their objectivity and can have chilling effects on the press.”
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agrees.
“It’s particularly frustrating and infuriating that they’re putting journalists in this situation when it’s clearly unnecessary,” Dalglish says, noting that Watada has not denied making the statements that Olson and Kakesako reported.
Olson even broadcast a radio interview with Watada, which is still available on the Internet, she adds, so the military prosecutors “can go to the National Radio Project’s website and verify his words themselves.”
On January 8, the Los Angeles Times denounced the military for going after Olson.
“No prosecutor should be able to conscript any reporter into being a deputy by compelling testimony made by a source—or go fishing for information beyond what a reporter presents in a story—unless it’s absolutely vital to protect U.S. citizens from crime or attack.” Such is not the case here, it argued.
Olson says she is not in a position to discuss what she is ultimately going to do or “what kind of legal strategy I will employ,” she says. But she appears to give a hint when she adds: “My duty as a journalist is to the public and to their right to know, and not to the government.”
She believes this case could set an awful precedent.
“It has the potential to be devastating to the independence of the press and to the press’s ability to report on dissenting voices particularly,” she says. “When individual reporters know they’ll be hauled in front of a military court and have their credibility eviscerated, they’re going to be far less likely to go to the trouble of reporting on subjects that are unpopular with the current Administration or in other ways controversial.”
The Army defends the subpoenas.
“The army’s request of the reporters is simply to verify or authenticate their stories, and to say their stories are an accurate representation of what Lt. Watada said either during an interview or during a public appearance,” says Joe Piek, spokesman for Fort Lewis, Washington, where Watada will be court-martialed. “The Army is not asking for reporters’ notes or tapes or confidential sources or anything like that.” The subpoenas are “in the interest of assuring that Lt. Watada’s court martial is fair, and impartial, and all the evidence is available.”
Watada’s court martial is scheduled for February 5-9.
Olson says she is holding up OK under the pressure.
“I’m doing just fine,” she says. “I’m actually very encouraged by the level of support that I’ve received.”