Applying the MCA to American Journalism

Why I Object to Testifying Against Lt. Watada
By Sarah Olson
Published: December 30, 2006 1:50 PM ET

OAKLAND (Commentary) In May of this year, I conducted an interview with Ehren Watada while working as a freelance journalist. Watada is a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq.

In the interview, Lieutenant Watada asserted that he had a duty as an officer to evaluate the legality of his orders and conduct himself accordingly. He said that he could not participate in the Iraq War because it was “manifestly illegal” and that his participation would make him a party to war crimes.

In June, Lieutenant Watada made national headlines when he refused to deploy to Iraq.

Lieutenant Watada continues to report for duty at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington while awaiting a February 2007 court-martial on one charge of “missing movement” and four charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Each of the latter four charges is based entirely on political speech. If convicted on all charges, Lieutenant Watada could spend up to six years in prison.

The U.S. Army has cobbled together portions of my interview with Lieutenant Watada and these statements comprise the foundation of one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. To substantiate this alleged crime, the Army has subpoenaed me to testify on behalf of their prosecution.

The dynamics of the situation are clear. When the military chooses to prosecute a soldier for expressing dissenting political positions to a member of the press, that journalist is unwittingly and inevitably forced into the middle of the conflict.

Among multiple issues this raises, it begs one central question: Doesn’t it fly in the face of the First Amendment to compel a journalist to participate in a government prosecution against a source, particularly in matters related to personal political speech?

It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion.

Further, it is stunningly ironic that the Army seeks my testimony – the testimony of a journalist – in a case against free speech itself. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?

When journalists are subpoenaed to confirm the veracity of their reporting, they typically agree to this limited request. What makes this case different is that the thing in question is the political nature of Lieutenant Watada’s speech. Participating in the U.S. Army’s court-martial forces me to build the case against my source and contribute to an act of suppression against the media’s ability to report the news.

Read the rest of what Sarah Olson says here.

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