For her silence a former USA Today reporter is having to pay from today a fine of $500 (over £250) every 24 hours.
Next week the figure goes up to $1,000 a day, and then a week later increases to $5,000 a day.
That’s the price a court here has ordered Toni Locy to pay until she reveals the source of stories she wrote five years ago about the infamous anthrax terror attacks of 2001.
The attacks – letters containing the deadly poison mailed to various news organisations – resulted in the death of five people, including a British journalist, Robert Stevens, working as a picture editor for the American tabloid, The Sun, whose office in Florida was one of the targets.
Stories that Locy wrote for USA Today included the suggestion that a former American Army scientist Steven Hatfill was a “person of interest” to the FBI. Hatffill, who was never charged, subsequently sued the Justice Department claiming his reputation had been ruined and demanding damages. His lawyers have demanded that Ms Locy reveal the name of the officials she interviewed. and on whom she based her stories.
Many American journalists are outraged at the penalty which the court is exacting. Locy, who now teaches journalism at a university in West Virginia, claims the fines will bankrupt her. In three weeks she will owe over $45,000, more than half her annual salary.
She has had offers of financial assistance – including an offer by USA Today – to pay the fines for her, but the judge hearing the case has forbidden anyone to help.
Several journalistic organisations fear the court’s ruling may create a precedent which will have a far-reaching effect on journalism in the US.
A senior official of the Reporters” Committee for the Freedom of the Press described the court ruling as “outrageous and unprecedented”. It was also suggested that unless the judge’s order is rescinded it could mean journalists in the future might have to take out insurance in case they ever face the same problem as Toni Locy.