Infoshop News interview with journalist Josh Wolf
- Infoshop News interview with journalist Josh Wolf
Independent journalist Josh Wolf recently made headlines for spending more than 7 months in federal prison over his refusal to hand over video of a protest to authorities. Wolf is an anarchist activist and a video journalist based in the Bay Area of California. We interviewed him over email.
How are you feeling after being out of prison for several days?
I feel good to be out; it's been three weeks now, but my life is still not back to where it was before this nightmare began. I've learned a lot through the entire experience and I hope that I can channel some of these lessons into a positive change.
What has the media circus been like? Have you heard any odd comments from the mainstream media about your release, your imprisonment, or your politics?
The media circus has been, well, a circus. The comments and stories have been all over the map and that's true of both the mainstream and alternative press. The strangest thing is how the hot question became, "Is Josh Wolf and activist or a journalist?" The answer is yes. I am an activist and I'm also a journalist; I'm a lot of things and as journalists have absolutely no protections in the Federal Grand Jury context the question is actually not at all relevant from a legal perspective. Forging a new understanding of what defines journalism is an ongoing conversation that we need to have as a society and it is not the central issue of my plight.
Were you at all surprised by the degree of mainstream media support that you did get, from the Society of Professional Journalists and various editorials?
We don't often look at things from this perspective, but journalists are actually the rank and file of the news business. It is not the mainstream journalists who have waged war on the free flow of information, it is their employers. The corporate media may be nothing more than a tool to reinforce the status quo, but that does not mean that the journalists themselves primary motivations are their company's bottom line. I think my case and the support I received from the journalist organizations and the reporters themselves demonstrates that there is some level of solidarity amongst the professional community. Many journalists get that an injustice to one is an injustice to all and although there was little mainstream press coverage of my case, journalists as a whole did express their support for my fight in a variety of ways.
Have you "expanded the floor of the cage" for independent journalists?
I don't know what you mean by this question; I think that I've made people seriously think about the role of independent journalists in the marketplace of ideas. I hope that my case helps make people realize that we, as an alternative to the corporate press, provide a segment of information which is often overlooked by the commercial media. When covered by the mainstream press, these stories are almost always skewed towards the status quo and I think that alternative reporting fills in some of these gaps left gaping after years of media consolidation and profit-driven decision making by our news media.
So now that things are wrapped up, can you re-cap why you think the state was so intent on getting this footage and putting you before a Grand Jury, and which agency (police? FBI? prosecutors office?) was driving the effort?
I don't know why the state was so intent. I guess it's kinda like running into a pit bull; when they decide to attack they rarely let up until someone is dead. They eventually released their grip on me, but it was only after they were able to save face by at least securing an unpublished videotape with nothing of any consequence or significant on it.
What was with the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) being involved?
What was with that? I guess they were having trouble following up on real terrorist investigations and seeing as I'm listed in the phone book it was easy enough to convince their bosses they were doing something to aid the "War on Terror." If Osama Bin Laden had his address in the phone book he may have been taken to jail instead of me. Then again, who'd ever suspect a terrorist to be listed?
Do you think that the government was using your case to try out new legal strategies against activists? The excuse that the police car was funded by "federal funds," thus federalizing your involvement, could be a new approach by the government to crack down on dissent.
In all honesty, I think it goes a lot farther than simply cracking down on dissent. The fact that the Federal government was able to get involved in this case is a serious threat to state autonomy. If they can make a federal case out of somebody allegedly throwing a firework four days after the fourth of July, then is anything shielded against federal jurisdiction? The San Francisco Police Department receives federal funding; a lot of local agencies get some form of federal funding. If this alone allows them access then this pretext can be used to squash dissent, but it opens the door for all sorts of unsavory investigations against the will of local government and the communities themselves.
There will be a few people who criticize you for releasing the unedited video to the authorities. Do you think this is a fair criticism or do you think that you've done enough to protect the identity of activists and block the state?
At the end of the day, there was nothing on the unpublished material that I had any real reason not to release to the public. Yes, there's a lot of shaky camera work and some embarrassing shots of my shoes, but this material was not kept private to protect anyone and my only motivation for keeping it private was my belief that no one should be forced to turn over anything to the government against their wishes. What I chose to include on my edited video was simply a matter of pacing and an effort to release a reportage of professional quality. I consider the outcome a victory as I was able to avoid testifying before the federal grand jury about the identities and activities of those at the protest.
Is it a fair criticism to say that I still gave up something by publishing the video. Of course it is, but, it'd also be a fair criticism to accuse me of self-martyrdom had I remained in jail after successfully fighting for an opportunity to leave prison without providing any real information to the government.
What lessons did you learn from this about journalistic objectivity or subjectivity? It seems like a lot of your struggle was being able to say "yes I'm an anarchist, and yes I'm a journalist."
I don't know what I learned from this about journalistic objectivity. I've been convinced for some time that the very notion of "journalistic objectivity" is nothing more than a hopeless ideal. I set out to begin my videoblog from this perspective and I continue to feel that the most vital means of newsgathering is to be transparent about one's personal or professional bias and avoid hiding behind the veil of false objectivity.
How do you think your ordeal will influence independent, activist journalists covering protests? Do you think it will have a chilling effect? Do you think it will make people think twice before taping police-activist confrontations or potentially illegal actions?
I don't know how this ordeal will effect journalists (both independent and those from the MSM); I'd like to think that it will inspire us to be more active than ever before, but I'm sure it will also have a chilling effect for some. My biggest concern is that my incarceration has had a chilling effect on activists themselves and anarchists in particular. I haven't been out long enough to observe what effect this has had on the local bay area anarchist community but I have heard from sources that everyone is pretty afraid right now and trying to stay under the radar.
Have you been surprised that the media coverage of your situation has focused on the journalism angle as opposed to grand jury investigations of activists or the political goals of the G8 protest that you were filming?
Not surprised, but I've certainly been frustrated that so many stories have become hung up on trying to decide whether I am really a journalist or not. I don't know whether the focus should necessarily be focused on Grand Jury investigations of activists or the political goals of the protesters I filmed, but I do think that many more people should ask the question whether the Federal government should be able to imprison people for up to 18 months for refusing to act as government informants. Perhaps I should be thankful they didn't bust out the water board, but it's an Orwellian society that seeks to make spies and de-facto agents out of its people.
What kind of insights did you glean from your experience in prison? Will you be doing anything related to prisoner support?
I was privy to so many insights as a result of my incarceration that it is difficult for me to even begin to discuss what I've learned at this point in time. One of the most important lessons I learned is that our so-called right to a fair trial is completely non-existent in Federal Court and that the justice system I already knew was flawed is in a far worse state of affairs than I ever imagined. I do plan to do a lot of work with prisoner support in the future and am especially interested in helping prisoners as a whole and not focusing on political prisoners in particular. As long as there are people who are in poverty then there will always be desperate acts committed; all of these people are political prisoners.
I started prisonblogs.net while I was incarcerated and although the site still needs some serious work, it'll eventually become a portal that uses a peer-to-peer approach to allow prisoners to start and maintain their own blogs through a sponsor who will type and/or scan their blog posts. Prisonblogs.net feels that every voice deserves to be heard, and we are optimistic that exposing the prison system to the public through the words of those inside will catalyze real and profound change. The project will also help those incarcerated to make contacts and develop support on the outside.
What did other people in jail think of your situation?
Most of the guys at the FDC understood and respected me for what I did. Most everyone there was imprisoned as a result of someone snitching on them so it made sense that they'd feel some camaraderie with a guy who was locked up simply for refusing to talk to the feds.
What kind of media projects will you be working on in the near future?
I don't know yet, I've been so busy getting my life back together, I haven't had much time to concentrate on my media work. I hope to sit down on-camera with Tony Serra sometime and talk about our recent experiences dealing with the BOP and what we both took away from our unique experiences locked up in the Federal system.
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