It’s almost seven years since the Great Anthrax Terror Scare gripped the US. That was when several news organisations in America – plus several politicians – received mysterious envelopes containing a white powder which, on analysis, turned out to be a deadly poison, anthrax
Before an alarm could be sounded, five people died – among them a former British journalist, 63 year old Robert Stevens, working as a picture editor on the weekly tabloid, The Sun.
One of the envelopes had been delivered to the Florida office of the National Enquirer, a sister paper to The Sun, and was opened in the company mailroom.
Some newspapers named former Army scientist Dr Steven Hatfill as a person in whom the authorities were “interested”. He was never charged.
Now it’s the reporters who wrote stories about the suspected plot who are in the dock. Dr Hatfill, who has been described as a onetime ‘bioterrorism’expert, is suing the US Government, claiming his reputation was ruined by leaks to the news media.
A court hearing his case has demanded that the reporters involved reveal their sources. They have refused.
As a result, one of them, Toni Lucy, a former reporter for USA Today who now teaches journalism at West Virginia University has been deemed guilty of contempt of court – and subject to a fine.
The fines start at $500 a day for the first seven days, then $1,000 a day for the next seven days and $5,000 a day for the week thereafter. In all she could face a bill of more than $45,000.
And she can’t seek help. The judge ordered that no outsider, specifically her former employer, USA Today, could help her pay the fines.
Nor the university where she now works. Lucy, whose salary is just $75,000 a year, has said that the fines could bankrupt her.
The case – which has created disquiet among many journalistic organisations – is seen as yet another attempt to restrict press coverage in the US.
In recent years, courts in the US have been increasing the pressure on reporters to identify their sources for what some regard as politically sensitive stories.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has said that if the trend continues and the courts impose fines on reporters, it will become risky for journalists in future to write anything about a suspect who has not already been arrested and indicted.
To which Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail two years ago for refusing to testify before grand jury about a story she wrote about the deliberate leaking of a CIA agent’s name, added: ‘There are many way to intimidate or silence journalists.
“One depressing tactic is to jail them for refusing to divulge the names of confidential sources. But now there is an alternative: Bankrupting them.”