Late last year, Sarah Olson found herself in a place no journalist wants to be: she had become a part of the story she was covering.
Olson, 31, is an independent journalist based in Oakland, California. She has written for TruthOut.org, and her work has also been featured on Pacifica Radio and the National Radio Project. She was the first reporter to interview Lt. Ehren Watada, just before the commissioned officer from Honolulu publicly voiced his opposition to the Iraq war and refused to deploy with his unit last June.
In December, she was subpoenaed to testify in the court martial of Lt. Watada, in order to verify the accuracy of the statements she attributed to him after their initial interview. Watada himself confirmed the accuracy of his own statements, and the Army let Olson know on Monday, Jan. 29 that she would no longer be required to take the stand in his court martial, scheduled for Feb. 5 at Ft. Lewis, just outside Seattle.
Following that news, Olson joined me for a phone interview, which was broadcast on KBOO Community Radio. Hot Action picked a juicy excerpt from that interview. Read on to hear about the politics of free speech, journalistic ethics and the mysterious nature of military subpoenas.
WW: Lt. Watada has spoken to a lot of reporters. I interviewed him myself when he came to Portland last June and he was on Fresh Air talking to Terry Gross just last week. I'm curious about why you were singled out to testify in his case.
Sarah Olson: It's a good question. I don't know. I can tell you a couple of things. First of all, I did a fairly lengthy interview with him first, and it was published the day Lt. Watada convened a press conference and became public with his opposition to the Iraq war. The interview was readily available to the army prosecutors in print right away, but as you point out, there are a number of journalists who have reported him saying essentially the same things that he said to me. There is certainly broadcast of those kinds of statements as well as video recordings that are available online and certainly through those media organizations. So it's not entirely clear to me why the Army had chosen to look at me with an increased degree of scrutiny.
WW: Were you prepared to refuse the military subpoena?
I had been asked that before and legally, I wasn't really able to say what I was going to do should I have been forced to go into court and participate in this. I think I was very clear about my opposition and at the end of the day, I don't think that the choice between one's liberty, personal freedom, and one's integrity is a choice that any journalist should need to make.
WW: What kind of advice did you get about what might have happened if you had declined to cooperate with the subpoena?
If I were to have been forced to take the stand, and should I have refused to answer the questions, I was faced with a felony contempt of court charge and up to 6 months in prison.
WW: You were not asked for any confidential material or anything that was not already part of the public record and yet, you felt that taking the stand would have compromised your journalistic ethics. Is that right?
That's true. The Army has been very clear about what they wanted from me. They say they simply wanted me to take the stand and verify the accuracy of the statements that I'd published…To me it raised a question of what is my job as a journalist and how do I accomplish it? Will people continue to speak with me if they see me as kind of colluding with the government? I feel that it's a journalist's job to report the news and not to participate in government prosecutions and certainly not to participate in government prosecutions of personal, political speech. JULIE SABATIER
Check out Hot Action, WWire's weekly post about activists, demonstrations and other hot political action in and around Portland every week.
UPCOMING HOT ACTION EVENTS:
Friday, February 2
Lecture: Julian Bond on Civil Rights
Julian Bond has been chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1998. He served in the Georgia legislature as both a Representative and as a Senator. He is a professor at the University of Virginia and will be in Portland to talk about civil rights “In the Day, Today and Tomorrow.” 8pm at Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland. Free and open to the pubic.
Monday, February 5
Day of Action: Lt. Watada's Military Court Martial
Lt. Ehren Watada claims the war in Iraq is illegal and that he was upholding his duty to the constitution by refusing illegal orders when he refused to deploy with the Stryker Brigade last June. As court martial begins, student activists will join Iraq Veterans Against the War for a rally, political art performance and vigil. 9am-5pm outside Fort Lewis, WA. Exit 119, off I-5. Dress in warm clothes and bring food. Coffee will be provided. Free.
Reading: Gabriel Thompson
Gabriel Thompson's There's No José Here
draws out the voices of Mexicans in the U.S. to share their thoughts on the immigration debate. Thompson uses his skills as a journalist and as a writer as he tells the story of a Mexican family he befriended in Brooklyn.7:30pm at Powell's Books on Hawthorne. Free.