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FOI Alert: Journalist objects to testifying before military tribunal

By Meghan Murphy, SPJ FOI Committee member

Facing a subpoena from military court, an Oakland freelance journalist says the government is using media as a tool to prosecute free speech.

Sarah Olson was subpoenaed Dec. 14 in the court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, who is charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and missing troop movement. Olson quoted Watada in an article for truthout.org, in which the officer criticized President George Bush and the Iraq war.

Watada is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq. Gregg Kakesako, a military affairs reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, has also been subpoenaed in the case and more reporters may be called.

The Society of Professional Journalists is defending Olson's objection to the subpoena. "We believe this action is offensive to a free and unfettered press in this nation and creates an atmosphere where journalists will not be able to freely report about the work of men and women in uniform," President Christine Tatum wrote.

Olson has expressed outrage about the subpoena and obtained a lawyer from the First Amendment Project. "It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion," Olson wrote in a column.

The military's case against Watada is primarily built on statements to the press. And, without Olson's testimony, the prosecution has little ground to stand on. The court can't simply accept Olson's article as proof; the reporter herself must testify to the authenticity of her story.

Reporters often do testify in court to confirm their reporting, because fighting a subpoena is expensive, Lucy Daglish of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the Concord Monitor. Olson said she has no issue standing behind the veracity of her report, her concern is that her testimony would chill free speech and free press.

"If conscientious objectors know that they can be prosecuted for speaking to the press and that the press will participate in their prosecution, it stands to reason that they would think twice before being public about their positions," Olson told the Chronicle.

The trial is expected to begin in February.

Related Content:

— SPJ’s letter to Army and Defense Department Officials
— Sarah Olson: Why I Object to Testifying Against Lt. Watada, Editor & Publisher
— Journalist pressured to testify, Concord Monitor
— Reporter Summoned to Testify Against War Resister, Inter Press Service News Agency
— ACLU defends free speech rights of Lt. Watada
— Truthout's Sarah Olson Subpoenaed in Watada Case, Truthout.org
— Army subpoenas journalists over officer's quotes, San Francisco Chronicle

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