United States

UNITED STATES IAPA President James McClatchy's prediction that the pressure against free speech in the United States will continue to grow has been borne out by developments since the Midyear Meeting. The most worrying trend is the increasing number of reporters who are being called upon to reveal their sources by prosecutors, defending lawyers and judges. As we meet, two reporters face the prospect of jail terms for refusing to comply with court orders that they see as a threat to press freedom. Tim Roche of the Stuart News, Florida, has been sentenced to 30 days in prison for refusing to say who gave him court documents revealing the outcome of a controversial child custody case. Roche has petitioned the Supreme Court, which has granted a temporary stay. The Court will decide whether to hear his case when it reconyenes October 5. Susan Smallheer of the Rudland Daily Herald is in judicial limbo, facing the likelihood of jail and fines. Judge George F. Ellison of the Vertnont District Court in White River Junction ordered Ms. Smallheer to testify about three telephone interviews with a prisoner who is a suspect in the murder of a schoolteacher. Ms. Smallheer and the Herald contend that compelling her to testify would have a chilling effect on news gathering and that the court has sufficient information in her published reports. Ms. Smallheer appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that she must be formally cited for contempt of court before she can appeal. The Supreme Court sent the appeal back to the lower court, which must decide now whether to hold Ms. Smallheer in contempt for refusing to testify. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press views with alarm a flood of subpoenas unleashed on the media in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. Prosecutors wished to identify looters and other offenders by viewing film and video tape, but television stations have refused to release material that has not be en broadcast. The Reporters Committee is a150 concerned about the increasing number of court orders calling upon joumalists to disclose their sources of information. So far, however, no Journalist has been taken into custody for refusing to do so. The most effective protection against judicial harassment appears to be "shield laws" that are now in force in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Far more chilling than court orders is the unsolved murder of the Hispanic journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue, a fearless investigative reporter and former editor of La Prensa of New York. He was gunned down in a Queens, New York, restaurant on March 11 in a typical gangland killing. It has been reported that the New York Police Department has more than 80 leads to the case. Suspects range from cocaine cartel assassins to local mobsters and corrupt political interests in Puerto Rico. Douglas W. Payne, writing in the Freedom House magazine, Freedom Review, warns: The murder of Manuel de Dios indicates that powerful forces believe they now can attack the media in the U.S. with impunity (as they have in Latin America) .... They must be proved wrong. For if De Dios' death is allowed to pass unchallenged, he will not be the last U.S. journalist to die for a free press." On a far more prosaic note, the libel Defense Resource Center reported August 26 that jury awards in libel cases for the most recent two-year period average in excess of $9 million. The LDRC notes, "In the first two years of the 1990s juries have already awarded more than four-fifths (82.2%) the total of all damages initially awarded by jurors during the entire decade of the 1980s." The LDRC is calling for refortn of the Defamation Act uto avoid the chilling effects that inexorably flow from huge initial awards, even when they are ultimately reversed or reduced in subsequent proceedlngs. Since the IAPA March mission to Miami to investigate harassment and threats to The Miami Herald, there have been no further such incidents.