by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

On Feb. 5, the court martial trial of Army Lt. Ehren Watada will begin at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington. Watada has refused to deploy to Iraq, citing his belief that the Iraq war is illegal and contrary to the Army’s Law of Land Warfare. It is not unusual for the Army to prosecute those who refuse an order, but in Watada’s case the Army also is prosecuting him for talking to reporters about his decision and rationale. The charges of “conduct unbecoming of an officer” relate to his interviews with reporters and carry a potential four-year prison term. It has been more than 40 years since the Army has prosecuted an officer for making statements to the press.

To prosecute Watada, the Army has issued subpoenas to four of the journalists who interviewed him. While Watada’s comments have been widely published and clearly attributed to him, the Army is threatening six-month prison terms for any journalist who refuses to testify against Lt. Watada.

Sarah Olsen is a free-lance journalist who wrote an article about Watada for the Web site and has been subpoenaed to testify against Watada.

“It’s a reporter’s job to report the news,” Sarah said. “It’s not a reporter’s job to participate in the prosecution of sources. Once you involve a reporter in prosecution, you turn that reporter into the investigative arm of the government.”

Others in the media agree. “Trying to force a reporter to testify at a court-martial sends the wrong signal to the media and the military,” said James Crawley, president of Military Reporters and Editors. “One of the hallmarks of American journalism, as documented in the Bill of Rights and defended by our armed services, is a clear separation of the press and the government. Using journalists to help the military prosecute its case seems like a serious breach of that wall.”

In the United States today, reporters have no legal right to refuse to testify against their sources. If we all agree that our democracy depends on a free and independent press, then what effect does it have on our democracy when every reporter is also a possible government investigator? I think we can agree that would have a chilling effect on both the press and our democracy.

In Missouri, a relatively weak shield law for journalists went down in flames again last year, partially because it contained language that would protect those who “publish, in either print or electronic form, a newspaper, book, magazine, pamphlet, or any other periodical” without defining exactly what is considered a periodical. For legislators, apparently the problem is any such law might protect bloggers in addition to paid reporters.

Why shouldn’t anyone, professional or amateur, who reports be protected? Is it right that our government can force a blogger or a paid reporter to reveal his or her sources and compel him or her to assist in the prosecution of those sources?

Every American should have the right to pick up a pen and start investigating the motivations and mechanisms of the government. Heck, I’d say it’s not only a right, but a duty! And anyone who does so should be protected from revealing to the government his or her sources of information.

One of the great gifts of the digital revolution is the ability for average citizens to report to the world about their lives, to report on what they are seeing and hearing and what their elected officials are doing right and doing wrong. In the past, only those who owned a printing press or a broadcast station could get their stories to a wide audience. But no longer are press owners the only sources for investigative reporting. In the age of the Internet, everyone has the ability to become an investigative reporter. And anyone who reports should be able to legally refuse to testify against his or her sources.

As citizens, we have given up a lot of our rights in the past six years, all in the name of national security. We have given the government the ability to arrest us without cause, review our phone records without cause and hold us indefinitely without charge. It is only just that all Americans should be able to freely investigate their government, if for no other reason than to ensure it is not abusing these new “tools in the war on terror.”

For the sake of our democracy, Congress should pass strong legislation to protect reporters and amateur journalists alike, whether they are published in the Tribune or in cyberspace.