The United States is used to representing the high road when it comes to freedom of the press. If it fails to set the right example, countries with weaker traditions of civic rights are bound to notice. As the New York Times reporter Judith Miller enters her fifth week in jail for refusing to disclose a source, the repercussions are being felt abroad.
In the days after Ms. Miller's arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that three countries harassed or jailed journalists while pressuring them to reveal their sources. In Burundi, government authorities jailed the journalist Etienne Ndikuriyo - for a story questioning the health of the president. According to the journalist group, Mr. Ndikuriyo said that while in jail, police interrogators kept demanding that he reveal his sources; he refused. He was released after a week but faces criminal charges.
In Nepal, a police inspector demanded that one newspaper editor reveal his sources for a report on fighting between the government and Maoist rebels. In another incident, two military officers demanded that an editor of a new weekly reveal sources for an article. And in Serbia and Montenegro, two police officers visited an independent daily newspaper demanding that the editor tell them the source of information for an article identifying where Gen. Ratko Mladic, the indicted war criminal, might be hiding.
Commentators close to autocratic rulers are using the jailing of Ms. Miller "to legitimize gross and continuous press freedom violations" all over the world, said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We've heard from journalists in other countries raising alarms that if the U.S., which has the freest press in the world, is going to imprison journalists, then it's fair game for everyone else."
Last week when Russian authorities, peeved that ABC News dared to broadcast an interview with the Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, barred the network's journalists from working in Russia, the response from the State Department seemed muted. "We certainly respect ABC's right, as a news operation, to operate as it sees fit," said a spokesman, Tom Casey. Mr. Casey didn't say much more, and it's no wonder.
By keeping Ms. Miller in jail, the United States is sending a signal to the rest of the world that it is O.K. to go after journalists as long as you invoke national security. That's not a good message to send.