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Jailing of writer taints U.S. reputation, says international press advocate

By The Associated Press, staff


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HOUSTON — A South American news-media advocate visited an imprisoned Texas writer yesterday, calling her jailing a kink in this country's reputation as a beacon for free speech.

Vanessa Leggett, a novice crime writer jailed for refusing to surrender her notes about a Houston society murder, has spent more time behind bars than any other journalist in the United States.

"The Inter American Press Association is very concerned and alarmed about this case," said Danilo Arbilla, the international group's president.

Leggett was jailed in July for contempt of court after refusing to turn notes from her own research over to a federal grand jury investigating the slaying. She said the notes included interviews with confidential sources, and turning them over would prevent her from writing a book about the 1997 slaying of Doris Angleton.

Arbilla, who also owns a magazine in Montevideo, Uruguay, traveled to Houston to reaffirm the group's support for Leggett's effort to protect confidential sources.

The government has contended that Leggett should not be given special treatment as a journalist because she had not previously published an article and is therefore not a journalist.

But Arbilla said Leggett had a clearly stated interest in writing a book, and she should therefore be treated as a journalist.

Meanwhile, Leggett wrote a story for Newsweek last month.

Arbilla said the case raised serious issues about protecting confidential sources, which have been used in some of the most important journalistic investigations in this country.

"If (confidential sources) were not respected, Nixon would have never fallen," he said, referring to "Deep Throat," the unnamed official who helped reporters break the Watergate case involving President Richard Nixon.

He said that forcing journalists to reveal secret sources is no more acceptable than entering a home without a warrant.

"A system of laws and rights cannot function if information is obtained deceptively," he said.

Arbilla said the United States has traditionally been a leader in the area of press freedom, which makes it easier to encourage other nations to emulate the example. But now that is changing.

"We're worried that a country that has always been a good example is now setting a bad example," he said.

The Miami-based association has 1,400 member newspapers from North and South America.

Several other international press-freedom groups have joined IAPA and U.S. organizations in criticizing Leggett's jailing.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft Aug. 7 calling for Leggett's release.

"As a matter of strategy and policy, CPJ concentrates its efforts on countries where journalists are most in need of international support and protection," CPJ's letter states.

"As a result, we do not systematically monitor press freedom violations in the United States. CPJ only takes up a U.S. case when it involves a serious press freedom violation that is likely to have far-reaching effects on journalists here as well as abroad. Leggett's unjust incarceration is such a case."

The International Press Institute, based in Vienna, also sent a letter to Ashcroft expressing its concern about the situation.

"IPI believes that the journalist's right to protect confidential sources and unpublished information is one of the fundamental aspects of investigative journalism and that any encroachment on this right is a direct threat to press freedom," the IPI's Aug. 1 letter stated.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists stated in August that the case is "undermining constitutional protection for writers and journalists."

"The authorities play a dangerous game when they start to pick and choose which writers and journalists are entitled to the protection of the Constitution," the IFJ states.


Federal appeals panel refuses to free jailed writer
‘This court takes a narrow view of the journalist's privilege in criminal cases, particularly in grand jury proceedings,’ says opinion.  08.20.01


The making of a First Amendment martyr
Ombudsman Journalist Vanessa Leggett sits in jail because she won’t become an investigative pawn of government.  08.22.01

Jailed writer says loss of freedom more real to her since Sept. 11 attacks
‘It is just something that I have been resolved to endure each day for as long as it takes,’ says Vanessa Leggett.  10.10.01

IAPA names free-speech prize winner
Meanwhile, presidents in Mexico, Venezuela complain about press coverage of their governments.  11.07.01