Journalist Sarah Olson, on assignment for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., interviews war resister Pablo Paredes in Los Angeles, March 2006. Photo by Yasemin Kasim.

Courage to Resist. January 17, 2007

In a move which threatens the First Amendment rights of journalists, the U.S. Army has subpoenaed journalist Sarah Olson to testify at the February 5 court-martial of Lt. Ehren Watada. The Army placed another journalist, Dahr Jamail, on the prosecution witness list.

With yesterday’s ruling by military judge Lt. Col. John Head that all charges against Lt. Watada will go to trial next month, a showdown between these reporters and the military draws nearer.

Both journalists are fighting back, saying the Army’s attempt to compel their participation in the court-martial threatens press freedom and chills free speech.

“My duty,” Olson says, “is to the public and its right to know and not to the government.” In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Olson explained, “Journalists should not be asked to participate in the prosecution of political speech.”


“The President of the United States, to Ms. Sarah Olson. You are hereby summoned and required to appear on the 5-9 day of February, 2007 at 9:00 o’clock A.M. at Bldg 2027, Fort Lewis [Washington] to testify as a witness in the matter of U.S. v. Watada. Failure to appear and testify is punishable by a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for a period not more than six months, or both,” reads the subpoena served by an Oakland, California sheriff deputy.  The Society of Professional Journalists, the PEN American Center, Military Reporters and Editors, Media Alliance, the Los Angeles Times, and many others have published statements in support of Olson.

“Do I want to be sent to prison by the U.S. Army for not cooperating with their prosecution of Lieutenant Watada? My answer: Absolutely not. You may also ask: Would I rather contribute to the prosecution of a news source for sharing newsworthy perspectives on an affair of national concern? That is the question I wholly object to having before me in the first place,” described Olson in an Editor & Publisher Op-Ed entitled “Why I object to testifying against Lt. Watada.”

Colleagues and supporters of Sarah Olson and Dahr Jamail have formed the Free Press Working Group to assist in their defense. As independent journalists, they do not have access to corporate legal teams, so a fund has been established to cover travel, legal, and communications expenses.

Meanwhile, under a new federal law, journalists embedded with U.S. troops could now be directly subjected to a military court martial for the first time. Phillip Carter, a contracting lawyer with McKenna Long & Aldridge, explained in Monday’s Washington Post, “One could imagine a situation in which a commander is unhappy with what a reporter is writing and could use the UCMJ to pressure the reporter.” Crimes covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice include disobeying an order, fraternization, contempt of government officials, and conduct unbecoming—among many others. Lawmakers claim the intent for the law was to hold the 100,000 U.S. government civilian contractors working in Iraq accountable to some law, any law.