Wiretapped, denounced and indicted, 'leakers' and journalists feel heat around the world

Sunday, July 2, 2006

NEW YORK -- Headline by headline, a trickle of news leaks on Iraq and the antiterror campaign has grown into a steady stream of revelations, and from Pennsylvania Avenue to Downing Street, Copenhagen to Canberra, governments are responding with pressure and prosecutions.

The latest target is The New York Times. But the unfolding story begins as far back as 2003, when British weapons expert David Kelly was "outed" as the source of a story casting doubt on his government's arguments for invading Iraq, and he committed suicide.

And this fall, Danish journalists face trial for reporting their government knew there was no evidence of banned weapons in Iraq.

In London's Central Criminal Court, too, accused leakers will be in the dock this fall, for allegedly disclosing President Bush talked of bombing al-Jazeera, the Arab television station. The British government threatens to prosecute newspapers that write any more about that leaked document.

Media advocates are alarmed at what they see as a mounting assault on press freedom in country after country, arguing it is potentially chilling the pursuit of truth as U.S. and European leaders pursue wars on terror and in Iraq.

"It's grotesque that at a time when political rhetoric is full of notions of democracy and liberty that we should have this fundamental right of journalists to investigate and report on public interest matters called into question," Aidan White, general-secretary of the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists, said.

But others say national interest requires stopping leaks of classified information, and that some media reports endanger lives by tipping terrorists to government tactics.

"We cannot continue to operate in a system where the government takes steps to counter terrorism while the media actively works to disclose those operations without any regard for protection of lives, sources and legal methods," Sen. Pat Roberts said in Washington.

The Kansas Republican was reacting to a June 23 report by the Times detailing a U.S. government program that taps into a huge international database of financial records to track terror financing.

Some GOP lawmakers called for criminal investigations of the journalists responsible and of the government insiders who leaked the information.

Investigations are already underway in other U.S. cases, reaching back to 2003, when whistleblower Joseph Wilson questioned a Bush administration claim about Iraq's supposed nuclear program. Times reporter Judith Miller spent three months in jail in that case last year, as investigators sought whoever leaked the name of Wilson's CIA-agent wife.

"Systematic surveillance is becoming one of the most worrying features in relations between authorities and media worldwide," said the journalist federation's White.

Even whistleblowers who don't divulge state secrets can feel the heat -- like Australia's Rod Barton.

After the Canberra government dismissed what he privately reported about phony weapons "intelligence" and prisoner abuse in Iraq, the former Iraq weapons inspector went public last year with the information. Soon Barton's government contract work evaporated, he was "disinvited" from official functions, and former colleagues were ordered to shun him.

"Although there is still freedom of speech, it is not entirely free. There is a price," he told AP.

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