Wimmer Fights for Greater Press Freedom

Defending press freedom from autocrats is more than a job for Covington & Burling attorney Kurt Wimmer. It's a family tradition.

As he was growing up in Wichita, Kan., his mother lit his imagination with the tale of his grandfather, a printer in World War II Luxembourg whose business was shut down by occupying German troops angered by his anti-Nazi circulars. And Wimmer's uncle was sent to prison camp for a year "because he wouldn't keep quiet." Fortunately, both men survived their run-ins with the Gestapo, but the realization that millions didn't survive taught Wimmer the importance of press freedom as a vital check on government power.

"I come from a long line of people who have a problem with authority," Wimmer jokes in a telephone interview from his firm's London office, where he is managing partner.

A journalist in college, Wimmer left reporting to take up law and planned to practice libel law in his hometown.

While supplementing his law degree with a master's in media studies from Syracuse University, he circulated a paper to Washington telecommunications attorneys for comment. Encouragement from civil-rights attorney David Honig persuaded him to consider a Washington firm, so Wimmer joined Sidley & Austin out of law school, then moved to a Dallas firm to represent Belo Corp. before returning to D.C. as a Covington & Burling associate in 1991.

Defending journalists in authoritarian countries and advising pro-free-speech politicians in the former Eastern Bloc and other countries have been the major aims of Wimmer's office. Some of the most critical assignments, defending individual journalists imprisoned or resisting government clampdowns, are for free. Wimmer says he tries to keep 10% of the office's work pro bono.

Covington & Burling began to develop its overseas press-freedom practice after the American Bar Association asked it to help Romania craft a public-broadcasting law. That work led to an assignment helping members of parliament strengthen press freedoms in Bulgaria.

In nearly every country of the former Soviet Bloc, even those making strides toward democracy, leaders have been hesitant to permit criticism of government and access to official information that Western countries consider a critical component of democracy.

Defending press freedom in countries with no heritage of free-speech rights has been a "fantastic experience" that required Wimmer to articulate his dedication to the First Amendment, he says. "It's easy for us in the U.S. to tell Congress or the FCC they can't impose some restriction because of the First Amendment. When you're in country with nothing like the First Amendment, you are forced to think about and explain how free speech benefits society and how openness is necessary if your country is going to be a place to do business."

After 10 years in the field, how does he see the state of press freedom overseas? Progress has been "great," Wimmer says, but it's still a relative measure. Most of Eastern Europe has "workable but not terrific" mass-media laws on the books. There's still too much power for government to step in and shut down journalists, but, at the least, acknowledgement of free speech has been put on the books in more countries.

The nexus of Covington & Burling's press-freedom and intellectual-property work has developed into a third area for the London office: global Internet policy.

Another related problem is the international oversight of Internet libel law. International bodies such as the European Union appear inclined to recognize the libel laws of the home county of individuals suing Web journalists for slander. "Internet law is going so badly," Wimmer says, "the only real hope is for some kind of international agreement."