Advocacy group raises concerns over threats to press freedoms in U.S.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- An association representing newspapers from across the Americas raised concerns on Saturday that U.S. courts have unjustly jailed and fined journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.

Inter-American Press Association warned against "disturbing signs on the press freedom front" in the United States, but the group applauded the U.S. Congress for taking up a bill that would give federal protection to reporters asked by prosecutors to identify confidential sources.

In a report issued at its midyear meeting in Caracas, the IAPA criticized U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton for ordering former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to pay up to $5,000 a day for refusing to reveal her sources for stories about a criminal investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Locy was found in contempt in February after she refused to identify confidential Justice Department sources for stories involving Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist under suspicion in the attacks. The fines are being delayed pending appeals.

"The ruling is unprecedented because it also prohibits her former employer, or anyone, from reimbursing her," it said.

The Miami-based IAPA also cited concern that New York Times reporter James Risen was subpoenaed in January by a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., apparently to divulge confidential sources who provided information for his 2006 book, "State of War."

The book's allegations describe an unsuccessful CIA effort to infiltrate Iran's nuclear program. Risen is fighting the subpoena.

At its midyear meeting in Caracas, the association also accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of using "attacks and intimidation" to reign in the media.

Several of Venezuela's most widely viewed television networks have curbed their criticism of the government since Chavez decided last year not to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, which now airs only on cable.

Chavez denies any such crackdown, saying dozens of newspapers, TV and radio stations criticize his administration.

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