The IPI global network strongly denounces an order by a Mississippi court compelling journalist Anna Wolfe to hand over documents that name her confidential sources for a story by Wolfe that exposed an elaborate and illegal welfare scheme that involved multiple high-power individuals, including Phil Bryant, the former Governor of Mississippi, and former NFL football player Brett Favre. While the court order is being challenged in the state’s Supreme Court, the decision is a worrisome sign of a broader decline in press freedom principles and standards in the United States in recent years. 

Wolfe, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist for Mississippi Today, exposed a welfare scandal in Mississippi, revealing that $77 million in federal funds given to the state of Mississippi under Governor Phil Bryant’s administration were directed elsewhere. The scandal heavily implicated Brett Favre, NFL Hall of Famer and former quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. Wolfe reported that over $8 million intended for welfare programs was directed into several of Favre’s associated businesses and organizations. Instead of benefiting Mississippi’s lowest-income residents as intended, welfare funds were redirected into initiatives, including $5 million that went to the University of Southern Mississippi for a new volleyball stadium — where Favre’s daughter was a player — $1.1 million for promotional work, and $2.1 million to Prevacus — a drug company in which Favre was a stockholder.

Governor Bryant is suing Mississippi Today for defamation. In a significant and alarming development, a court has ordered Wolfe and her editor, Adam Ganucheau, to produce documents naming confidential sources who helped to expose the welfare scheme. 

“The protection of sources is sacrosanct for journalists and press freedom. The ability of journalists to gather and receive information from sources is essential for the media to play its watchdog, accountability role” Amy Brouillete, IPI’s director of advocacy, said. “Forcing Anna Wolfe and the Mississippi Today team to reveal their confidential sources not only jeopardizes the privacy and safety of their sources but also sends a chilling message to other journalists. Essential stories will go unheard, and abuses of power will be left unchecked because witnesses fear retribution”. 

Mississippi Today has appealed to the state’s Supreme Court to challenge the court order from Bryant’s case to name the sources. Unless the order is overturned, Wolfe and Ganucheau face contempt charges for failing to reveal their sources. Meanwhile, despite the issuing of multiple indictments, no one has been imprisoned for misappropriating the welfare funds.

Reporters do not have a federally recognized privilege to keep their sources confidential. Mississippi does not have a shield law — a law common in other states that protects journalists against the forced disclosure of confidential information. However, to protect the freedom of the press established in the First Amendment, reporters and their sources must receive greater protections to continue holding power to account.