A judge's decision to punish five reporters for refusing to identify their sources for stories about nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee (search) threatens to chill vital newsgathering at a time of increased government secrecy, advocates say.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson (search) on Wednesday held the reporters in contempt and fined each of them $500 a day until they reveal their source. He said the information was needed for Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist once suspected of spying, to litigate his privacy lawsuit against government officials.

Jackson said the fines would be suspended pending appeals. Attorneys for the journalists said they would appeal.

It is the second time in two weeks that a federal judge in Washington has found journalists in contempt of court after they declined to disclose sources. Last week, a Time magazine reporter was held in contempt as part of a grand jury probe into the leak of an undercover CIA (search) officer's identity.

"The threat to First Amendment (search) rights that's going on this summer is unprecedented," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (search), said. "We have reporters being subpoenaed. We have judges issuing illegal prior restraints on the media.

"All this has to do with secrecy. The government is trying to keep more and more secrets all the time, and journalists are working harder to uncover those secrets. Given the terrorism climate, all this has come to a head," she said.

Jackson imposed the fine on Associated Press reporter H. Josef Hebert; James Risen and Jeff Gerth of The New York Times; Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times; and Pierre Thomas of ABC, who was at CNN when the stories were done.

Jackson avoided addressing the question of First Amendment rights, focusing more narrowly on whether the reporters complied with his October order to fully answer questions in depositions about their sources. He found they did not.

Lee is "not seeking to 'punish' the journalists for publishing the information; rather, he seeks an order of contempt because they will not reveal sources that they have been ordered to reveal," Jackson wrote in a 12-page opinion.

Lee is seeking the identity of the sources for his lawsuit against the Energy and Justice departments. He alleges the agencies gave reporters private information on him and suggested he was a suspect in an investigation into possible theft of secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory (search) in New Mexico.

The reporters contend they provided all the relevant information they could without breaking a commitment to protect their sources.

Lee was indicted in December 1999 on 59 felony counts alleging he mishandled nuclear weapons information. He was held in solitary confinement for nine months, then was released in September 2000 after pleading guilty to a single felony count. He was never charged with espionage, and then-President Clinton apologized for Lee's treatment.

Hebert, a 34-year AP veteran, said he was disappointed by Jackson's ruling.

"I believe strongly that when a reporter gives a source the assurance that his or her confidentiality will be protected, he cannot go back on his word," Hebert said. "To do so would be a disservice to the source, destroy the reporter's credibility with future sources and hinder essential newsgathering."

George Freeman, assistant general counsel for The New York Times, said, "The Times continues to believe, as we have for decades, that confidential sources are critical for us to give the public as broad a perspective as possible on the important issues of the day."

Los Angeles Times vice president Martha Goldstein said, "The ruling seriously jeopardizes the press's ability to report about our government's actions and the public's right to know."

At a hearing before the judge Wednesday, Lee's lawyer, Brian Sun, said learning the identities of the journalists' sources was critical to pursuing Lee's privacy action against government officials.

"Although the journalists would posit this as a battle of the First Amendment, we would submit it's not just that," Sun said. "It's undisputed that classified information was leaked and government officials acknowledged there were leaks. (Lee) is being deprived of crucial information."

Last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington held Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in contempt as part of the investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Prosecutors have subpoenaed at least four other journalists, and Cooper is appealing.