Area: 9,629,090 sq.km.
Language: English, Spanish
Type of state: federal republic
Head of state: President George W. Bush
The United States had a good ranking in the world press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders announced on 20 October 2003 but came only 135th out of 166 countries when its attacks on press freedom in Iraq were measured.
The US army targeted the media during its military operations there and was also involved in the killing of five journalists whose deaths it refuses to seriously investigate (see Iraq country report). At the US naval base at Guantanamo (Cuba), where suspected members and supporters of Al-Qaeda are being held, journalists have been strictly supervised since the worldwide publication in 2002 of degrading pictures of the prisoners. In 2003, the military even asked visiting journalists not to ask questions about what was happening at the base.
The Bush administration is involved in a controversial war and is concerned about the effect of images of it. It invoked the Geneva Conventions on protecting the dignity of prisoners-of-war when the media showed pictures of US soldiers captured by Iraqi forces. But photos of the mutilated bodies of the two sons of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after they had been killed by US troops and pictures of the president himself after his arrest did not evoke official US indignation.
The government is very concerned to control US public opinion, which has been extremely sensitive to US soldiers dying abroad since the Vietnam war and the weekly Army Times was criticised by the Pentagon for printing a picture of a fatally-wounded soldier on grounds of respect for his family. The same argument was used to ban coverage of the arrival back in the US of the coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq. But despite government efforts, 55% of Americans thought the US death toll in Iraq unacceptable, according to a poll done for the Washington Post and ABC in October 2003.
President Bush has been able to rely on the patriotic tone of the US media and US society in general and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) cancelled the accreditation of two journalists of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera after it broadcast pictures of US prisoners-of-war. The US media barely challenged Bush’s claims before the war began that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) and some waged smear campaigns against countries that opposed the war, especially France.
Self-criticism came later. Christiane Amanpour, who covered the war for CNN, said in September that journalists had not asked enough questions about WMDs, which she suggested was disinformation at the highest levels. This credibility crisis was aggravated by the case of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was forced to resign in early May after 37 stories he wrote were found to contain plagiarised material, inventions and inaccuracies.
In his war against terrorism, Bush is also watching out for America’s image. People in Muslim countries have an increasingly bad opinion of the United States, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. After setting up the radio station Sawa in the Middle East in 2002, the government decided to set up more in a bid to improve the US image. A magazine called Hi, aimed at people between 18 and 35, was launched in July, funded by the US state department. An entirely US government funded Arab-language TV station was to start up in early 2004.
In the US itself, the effects of the 11 September attacks are still being felt. The interception by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of a packet with important information sent to an Associated Press news agency journalist raised the serious question of whether it was just a blunder or part of extensive covert action by the FBI since the anti-terrorist Patriot Act gave it wide powers to investigate terrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began a legal challenge of the most dangerous parts of this law.
The US also changed its visa policy. The rule that working journalists must have a visa, once ignored by immigration officials, is now strictly enforced. As a result, 15 foreign journalists were deported on arrival. It was hard to call this a deliberate restriction of press freedom in view of the subjects these journalists were writing about, but application of the rule is disturbing.
They were treated like criminals, interrogated, searched, detained, photographed, fingerprinted and taken to planes in handcuffs - to prevent immigration officers being injured, according to one official. Some of the journalists watched as colleagues, also without journalist visas, passed through immigration without problem. Such deportations, nearly all of them at Los Angeles airport, may have been a case of over-zealous local police.
New cases in 2003 of violation of the confidentiality of sources, which is guaranteed by the first amendment to the national constitution, kept this issue a bone of contention with the judiciary. A federal judge ordered five journalists to reveal the sources that enabled them to implicate a scientist in spying. They were threatened with imprisonment for contempt of court if they refused.
20 journalists arrested
Photographer Thomas Sjoerup, of the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, was deported in March 2003 after being held several hours at Los Angeles airport while police photographed and fingerprinted him and took DNA samples.
Gary Gaynor, a photographer with the weekly Tucson Citizen, was arrested on 5 March while covering the police expulsion of about 30 people demonstrating at the University of Arizona against the Iraq war. He showed his press card and refused to leave when ordered to by police, who arrested him and threatened to seize his equipment unless he signed a statement admitting he had trespassed on private property. He agreed and is being prosecuted for this.
Kurt Mälarstedt, sent by the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter to cover Iraq war developments in the US, was arrested when he arrived at Washington DC airport on 20 March without a press visa. Before being deported, he was questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. He was not allowed to make any phone calls until all this had been done, preventing the Swedish embassy from intervening on his behalf.
Alexandre Alfonsi, of the French weekly Tele 7 Jours, was refused entry into the country on 10 May at Los Angeles airport for not having a journalist visa. Stephanie Pic and Michel Perrot, of the French weeklies Télé Poche and TV Hebdo, who had just passed through immigration without any problem even though they did not have such visas either, tried vainly to get an explanation. All three were then arrested and held for nearly 26 hours. They were freed the next day after being repeatedly questioned and body-searched six times. An official told Alfonsi he would never be allowed back into the country. The three journalists had come to report on a video games trade fair.
The same thing happened the next day to Thierry Falcoz, editor of the cable TV station Game One, and two of his cameramen, Alex Gorsky and Laurent Patureau, who were also on their way to the trade fair. They were detained until the next day and then put on flight back to France.
Swedish journalist Erik Hansson was arrested for not having a journalist visa when he arrived at Los Angeles airport on 13 May to report on the trade fair for several newspapers and magazines. Several colleagues who also did not have visas were not arrested. Hansson was kept in an unheated room and then questioned. Twelve hours later, he was taken in handcuffs to a police detention centre. The next day he was taken back to the airport where he was held in a cell for nine hours before being deported to Sweden.
Babette Wieringa and Anko Stoffels were arrested when they arrived at Los Angeles airport on 30 May to cover an award ceremony for world film stunt champions for the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. They did not know they needed a special visa, filled in a tourist entry form but told officials why they had come. They were not allowed to stay more than 12 hours at the airport and were taken to a prison in the city. They said they had been treated like criminals by the police.
Corey Kilgannon (reporter) and Librado Romero (photographer), of the daily New York Times, were arrested by the Coast Guard on 13 August for sailing in a boat into the security zone around New York’s Kennedy Airport. They were doing a report on three fishermen who had disappeared in the area the previous day. After warning them they risked up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine, the Coast Guard released Kilgannon but detained Romero because in 2002 he had been accused of riding a his bicycle on a sidewalk.
Rachael Bletchly, of the British weekly Sunday People, was arrested at Los Angeles airport on 9 October for not having a journalist visa and detained for 26 hours, during which she was not allowed to sleep or contact a lawyer or British consular officials. She had not been asked for such a visa on previous visits.
Celeste Fraser Delgado, of the weekly Miami New Times, was arrested on 20 November after interviewing demonstrators protesting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at a conference in the city about it. She was accused of refusing to obey a police order and peacefully resisting arrest. She was freed the next day and the charges dropped. Police had arranged an "embedding" of journalists in the police to "assist" their coverage of the protest. Fraser Delgado said the arrangement, which she had refused to take part in, was an attempt to control press coverage. The Independent Media Center (IMC) said three freelance journalists were arrested during the demonstration.
Peter Krobath, sent by the Austrian monthly SKIP to cover a film première, was arrested when he arrived at Los Angeles airport on 2 December for not having a journalist visa. He was interrogated for five hours, searched, photographed and fingerprinted and then taken to a prison in the city where he was detained with criminals. He was deported to Austria the next day.
Harassment and obstruction
Mohamed Hassan Alawi, New York correspondent for the official Iraqi news agency INA, and his family were given 15 days to leave the United States on 14 February 2003. The state department accused him of activities other than his normal work and harmful to national security. It was the first time a journalist accredited to the United Nations had been ordered out of the country. The Iraqi authorities retaliated the same day by ordering the expulsion of Greg Palkot, correspondent of the US TV network Fox News in Baghdad. He left on 17 February.
The US supreme court refused on 24 February to lift a ban by the New Jersey state supreme court on journalists contacting jury members before, during and after a trial and verdict, even if the juror made the approach. Three journalists from the daily Philadelphia Inquirer had been given six-month suspended prison sentences for this, commuted to several days of community service, on 20 June 2002.
A few days before the invasion of Iraq in early March, the Pentagon extended its ban on media access to military bases to which bodies of soldiers killed in action would be repatriated. The rule had been applied in the 1991 Gulf War and limited to Dover air force base in Delaware. It was now extended to others, including the one at Ramstein, in Germany, where the media had been allowed to film the handling of coffins during the October 2000 attack on the US destroyer Cole in Aden or in 2001, during the military operation "Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan.
Two reporters of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera had their accreditation cancelled by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on 24 March after the station broadcast pictures of US prisoners-of-war in Iraq that were described as "disgusting" by US general. An NYSE spokesperson told the US Committee to Protect Journalists that Al-Jazeera was not a responsible media, implying that the station’s coverage of the Iraq war was behind the decision. The two journalists were told on 29 April their accreditation would be restored.
President Bush signed into law on 25 March an amendment to a measure passed by the Clinton administration in 1995 barring classification of information as secret when there was "significant doubt" that it undermined national security. The amendment also postponed until 2006 the declassification of documents due to be made available in April 2003 and stipulated that information received from foreign governments was automatically secret on the assumption that their publication would harm national security. It extended the powers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to keep classified information secret and to reclassify it if wanted to.
The FBI returned to the Associated Press (AP) news agency on 8 May correspondence between two of its reporters that had been intercepted by US customs officials in September 2002 and handed to the FBI. It included documents declassified by the FBI in 1995 about a person convicted of terrorism. The journalists had not been told of the interception and the mail handling firm had pretended the package had been lost. A anonymous source had told AP in January 2003 about the interception which violated the Privacy Protection Act requirement of a court order for such action by customs or the FBI.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled on 2 June that a single media group could hitherto control up to 45% of the national TV audience, instead of the previous 35%, and removed a ban on a single consortium controlling a TV station and a newspaper or radio station covering the same market. The move was aimed at improving profitability by allowing firms to make economies of scale and supposedly adapting the law to new information media such as cable and satellite TV and the Internet. Civil society organisations attacked the decision as a serious blow to news diversity. The US House of Representatives in July and the Senate in September annulled the measure, but President Bush said he would veto the Congressional cancellation if it was sent to him to sign into law.
A presidential protection secret service agent went to the offices of the daily Los Angeles Times on 21 July to question cartoonist Michael Ramirez who had a cartoon in the paper the previous day showing Bush in Iraq and a man about to execute him, after a famous photo of man being executed during the Vietnam war. Ramirez said he was targeting Bush opponents trying to "politically assassinate" the president after he admitted false claims about Iraq buying uranium in Africa. The secret service agent was only able to meet the paper’s lawyer.
Swedish journalist Emil Nikkah was prevented in August from doing a report for the Swedish TV station Kanal 5 because of US delay in issuing him with a press visa. He was born in Iran, which is designated by the US as a country supporting terrorism. The US embassy in Paris said visa requests involving such countries had to be dealt with in Washington and could take up to eight weeks to process. The list of suspect countries is secret.
The FBI wrote on 19 September to journalists working for 13 media asking them to supply copies of interviews they had had with Internet hacker Adrian Lamo, who was accused of online fraud and hacking into the computers of several companies, including the New York Times. The media approached by the FBI included the websites securityfocus.com, msnbc.com, computerworld.com, newsbytes (a Washington Post site), the Associated Press and San Francisco Weekly. The FBI warned them it could seize the documents and recordings if necessary. After strong protests by the journalists and their media, the FBI had second thoughts and in a new letter on 7 October asked them not to publish news about the case but did not threaten action against them.
Several civil liberties organisations petitioned the federal supreme court on 29 September after the Washington DC federal appeals court authorised the government to conceal the names of 1,100 foreigners detained in the US since the 11 September attacks. The lower court had ruled in mid-June that the Freedom of Information Act did not require the government to reveal them and cited the amendment to the Act passed after the attacks for "national security" reasons.
Three journalists - from the AP, the New York Times and Fox TV - flew on 7 October to the US naval base at Guantanamo (Cuba), where suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists and supporters are being held. Before they left from a military base in Jacksonville (Florida), they were forced to promise in writing they would not ask any questions about ongoing investigations at Guantanamo, where spokeswoman Lt.Col. Pamela Hart said it was to "protect the integrity" of the investigations. The three journalists were the first to go to Guantanamo since the arrest of a Muslim army chaplain and two interpreters, one of whom was suspected of spying. After strong media protests, the questioning ban was lifted. On 14 October, five journalists leaving Florida for Guantanamo were asked to sign a new version of the ground rules which said US officials would not answer questions about ongoing investigations. But journalists were still banned from talking to prisoners on pain of losing their accreditation. They were also forbidden to take photos in which the prisoners could be identified, tape their words or report on their movements around the base.
On 14 October, Washington DC federal judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered journalists who had reported on the case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist accused of spying, to reveal their sources to Lee’s lawyer. They were Jeff Gerth and James Risen, of the New York Times, Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert of the AP and Pierre Thomas, working for CNN. The judge said Lee had the right to know who in the government had leaked his name to the media and warned the journalists they could be jailed for contempt of court if they refused. The two New York Times journalists refused to reveal the sources when they appeared in court on 18 December, citing the first amendment of the national constitution.
On 6 November, a judge in Oregon ordered a person accused of killing two children, as well as lawyers, witnesses and investigators in the case, not to talk to the media so as to ensure the jury did not come under outside influence. The defendant had given several interviews from prison claiming he was innocent.