News companies settle nuclear espionage lawsuit

American news organizations are bracing for a possible spate of new
lawsuits. Their apprehension follows the decision by five major
American news companies to pay $750,000 to a Chinese-born nuclear
scientist who back in 1999 was named in news stories as the target of
an espionage investigation.

Altogether Wen Ho Lee, who once
worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and was
fired from his job because of the allegations (but was never charged
with any offence even though he spent nine months in solitary
confinement) is to receive a total of $l,600,000 in compensation. Half
from the US Government to cover his legal fees, the rest from
Associated Press, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the
Washington Post and ABC.

In return, cases against five reporters
for contempt of court for refusing to name the sources of stories they
wrote about the case are being dropped. According to legal experts it’s
believed to be the first settlement of its kind. All the news
organizations agreed – reluctantly, they all said – to make the payment
to avoid possible jail sentences for their reporters, possibly even
larger payments in the form of fines – and the possibility the courts
might ultimately insist on them revealing the source of their
information. Legal costs have also continued to escalate. The news
organizations continue to insist that the accuracy of their reports has
never been challenged. At the same time government agencies do not
admit any violation of the former scientist’s privacy. Only one news
organizations – CNN – refused to be a party to the agreement.

Lucy
Daglish, executive director of the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of
the Press, one of the organizations that has voiced disquiet over the
settlement, described the agreement as “unprecedented”. “I am certainly
not happy about this” she said. But she agreed, on the positive side,
that the settlement will permit the reporters involved to continue to
protect their sources. Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the
Reporters Committee went so far as to describe the payments as “blood
money” “It’s the most creative way I’ve seen to make an end- run around
constitutional protections” she declared. She also suspected the deal
would encourage demands for payment in connection with even more
mundane cases, possibly even reports based on hospital statements about
people injured in crimes and accidents. “Will it be abused by others?”
She felt sure it would.

One other possible beneficiary of the
agreement could be another scientist Steven Hatfill who filed a suit
against the US Government after he was named back in 2001 as “a person
of interest” in a series of incidents involving the mailing of lethal
anthrax to several American news organizations – including a package
that resulted in the death of a British picture editor Robert Stevens
working at the time for The National Enquirer. Neither Hatfill or
anyone else has ever been charged in connection with the anthrax case.
His lawyers have filed a series of law suits against a number of
magazines including Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest, and are said to
have been closely following the Lee case.

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