PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A TV reporter was convicted of criminal contempt Thursday for refusing to say who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe — the latest in a string of cases in which journalists have been threatened with jail for protecting a source.
Jim Taricani (search) of WJAR was found guilty by a judge after a 45-minute trial and could get up to six months behind bars when he is sentenced next month.
Taricani called the verdict an "assault on journalistic freedom" and said he never thought he would have to serve time for doing his job.
"No reporter should have to pay such a terribly high price for honestly and legally reporting the news," WJAR said.
Taricani is one of several journalists nationwide who are locked in First Amendment battles with the government over confidential sources. That includes reporters for Time and The New York Times who have been held in contempt as part of an investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
Taricani, 55, got in trouble over a video that shows an undercover FBI informant giving an envelope full of cash to a top aide to former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. (search) Cianci and the aide, Frank Corrente, were convicted in a corruption case and are in prison.
The reporter broke no law by airing the tape in 2001, but a special prosecutor was appointed to find out who leaked it because the court had ordered no one to release any tapes connected to the case.
U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres (search) has said the leak was meant to either disrupt the investigation or deprive defendants of a fair trial by influencing prospective jurors. He ordered Taricani to answer questions about the tape last fall, but Taricani refused, saying he has a First Amendment right to keep his sources confidential.
In March, the judge found Taricani in civil contempt and imposed a $1,000-a-day fine until he identified his source. WJAR, owned by NBC, paid $85,000 on Taricani's behalf until the judge suspended the fine two weeks ago, saying it had not achieved its goal.
At Thursday's trial, Torres rejected a defense request to dismiss the case, and said it is "a complete distortion of the issue" to argue a First Amendment privilege.
The judge said the reporter's intent in protecting his source was not a factor in determining his guilt. "The issue is a very simple one," Torres said. "Did [the reporter] willfully violate this court's order? The evidence is clear ... and undisputed."
The judge has said that he would not sentence Taricani to more than six months in prison because of the reporter's health. Taricani received a heart transplant in 1996.
"I admire him enormously for sticking to his word," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "If journalists start revealing confidential sources, they are going to be viewed as an arm of the government and government investigators."
Just hours after the verdict, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, said he will introduce legislation as soon as Friday that would create a federal shield law for members of the media. The bill would protect reporters from being forced to provide information about their sources, and also protect notes, film, video or audio tapes, outtakes, photographs or negatives.