The 11 September 2001 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York perhaps caused more damage to press freedom in the United States than in any other country. First because nine journalists or media assistants were killed, and then because many restrictions were imposed on journalists wanting to cover the rescue operations or take pictures of Ground Zero, the disaster site. Oddly, the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people but not a single photograph of any of the bodies was shown. The US authorities relied on the self-censorship of the US media, which chose not to show "shocking" pictures. After President George W. Bush’s 20 September speech in which he called for a "war on terrorism," he was also able to count on their patriotic feelings. "America’s new war" (CBS), "The war against terror" (CNN) and "America strikes back" (CBS) were the slogans, always accompanied by an American flag in the corner of the screen. "If the media have sometimes lacked objectivity, it was not under official pressure," said Paul Khlebnikov, of the economic magazine Forbes. But such pressure soon appeared as the country’s military operation in Afghanistan began. "Recommendations" were made to the public radio station Voice of America and then to US television stations asking them not to give too much say to "enemies of America." Confidentiality of the Internet was seriously undermined by the passage in late October of the "USA Patriot Act" authorising the FBI to monitor e-mail exchanges between suspects without permission from a judge.
The military operations in Afghanistan led to other attacks on press freedom, including constant and increasing pressure on the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera, which was accused of giving too much air time to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and encouraging anti-American feeling in the Middle East. The US criticism chimed with that from several authoritarian Arab regimes who feared the station for giving a voice to their domestic opponents. The US government then tried to restrict access to information about the military operations when it bought up all the pictures of the fighting taken by the Ikonos satellite, virtually the only accurate non-military record of the damage done by the US military strikes. US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to dissuade officials from giving information to the media. In Afghanistan, American forces bombed the Afghan radio and TV headquarters. The offices of Al Jazeera, the BBC and the Associated Press (AP) news agency were also hit during the attack on Kabul. US Special Forces tried to keep reporters away from the Tora Bora region when they suspected Bin Laden was hiding there.
Until 11 September, the year had been marked by several episodes that seriously undermined the right of journalists not to reveal their sources. During a justice department enquiry into violation of secrecy in legal investigations, the telephone records of an AP journalist were examined without his knowledge, which outraged the agency when it was officially told about it several months later. The justice department said it had obtained journalists’ phone records on eight occasions since 1991 and added that over the same period, 60 journalists had been ordered to give court evidence or produce documents in their possession.
One of them, Vanessa Leggett, was jailed in 2001 for contempt for refusing to reveal her sources to a federal grand jury in Houston (Texas). She was still in jail at the end of the year, when her 165 days in detention was the longest time in US history that a journalist had been imprisoned for contempt of court.
Two journalists killed
The body of freelance photographer William Biggart was found in the ruins of the World Trade Center on 15 September 2001. He had gone to there immediately after the attacks and he and the firemen he was with were killed when the second tower collapsed. Biggart worked for Impact Visuals Agency (since 1998) and also for The Village Voice, The City Sun and The Christian Science Monitor newspapers.
Robert Stevens, a photographer for The Sun, a tabloid in Boca Raton (Florida) belonging to the American Media Co. (AMC) group, died of pulmonary anthrax on 5 October, the first recorded case in the US since 1976. He is thought to have caught it after handling a letter that arrived at the paper’s offices on 19 September addressed to actress Jennifer Lopez and containing a bluish powder. Anthrax spores were found on the journalist’s computer keyboard. The origin of the letter and the motive for sending it remain unknown.
Eight media assistants killed
Several engineers working for broadcasting firms with offices at the top of the north tower of the New York World Trade Center were killed during the 11 September 2001 attack that demolished the Center. They were Isaias Rivera and Bob Pattison of WCBS-TV, William Steckman of WNBC-TV, Donald Di Franco of WABC-TV, Steve Jacobson of WPIX and Rod Coppola of WNET-TV. Alex Braginsky and Geoffrey Thomas Campbell, of the commercial service of Reuters news agency, were also killed.
Four journalists jailed
A British photographer, Steve Morgan, and Jorge Torres, a Spanish cameraman working mainly for the Mercury Press International agency, were arrested on 14 July 2001 while covering a protest by 15 Greenpeace militants against the testing of the new US anti-missile shield at Vandenberg Air Force Base (California). The protest forced a delay in the test. The two journalists and the Greenpeace militants were arrested and held in Los Angeles and risk being jailed for up to 11 years and fines of up to $500,000 (580,000 euros) if found guilty of "conspiring to violate a safety zone" and trespassing and failure to obey an order." Torres was freed on bail on 17 July and Morgan five days later.
Vanessa Leggett, a writer and freelance journalist, was jailed on 20 July after being convicted the previous day for contempt of court by a federal grand jury in Houston (Texas). She had refused to give the court her notes and tapes of interviews made while investigating the April 1997 murder of a Texas millionaire’s wife with the aim of writing a book about it. She had spoken to the wife’s brother-in-law, a suspect in the murder, shortly before he killed himself. On 17 August, a Houston appeals court upheld her conviction on grounds that journalists could not refuse to testify before a grand jury. The conviction was upheld by another appeals court on 13 November and her lawyer said the case would be taken to the federal supreme court. By year-end, she had been in jail for 165 days, the longest time in US history a journalist has been imprisoned for contempt of court. William Farr, of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, was jailed for 46 days in 1972 for having refused to reveal his sources in court.
Ian Austin, a photographer of the Aurora Quanta Productions agency, was arrested on 28 September and freed three days later without any charges being brought. He had entered the security area established around the ruins of the New York World Trade Center after the 11 September attacks. "The police told me they were going to make an example of me," he said. The US Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) said at least four journalists had been arrested and accused of breaking the rules about entering the site. Journalists from the Dallas Daily News all had their accreditation cancelled after one of the paper’s photographers was arrested and accused of "misconduct."
A journalist arrested
The Washington correspondent of the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera, Mohammed Al-Alami, was arrested at Waco airport, in Texas, on 14 November 2001 after he arrived to cover a meeting between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Police with M-16 automatic rifles followed as I was leaving the airport and arrested me," he said. Al-Alami showed police his US passport and his accreditation to no avail. Because his credit card had been used in Afghanistan to buy his plane ticket, police refused to let him leave the airport. He was freed a few hours later after intervention by US intelligence officials. The FBI said his arrest was a case of mistaken identity. In previous weeks, the management of Al Jazeera had come under great pressure from US officials because of its coverage of the war in Afghanistan.
A dozen media employees were contaminated in October 2001 by anthrax or received suspicious mail at the Boca Raton (Florida) offices of the American Media Co. (AMC) and at several national media offices in New York. After the death of AMC photographer Robert Stevens from the disease on 5 October, seven other AMC employees went down with it. Mailroom worker Ernesto Blanco contracted the pulmonary version of the disease but the six others who came into contact with anthrax spores did not develop the disease. Fear gripped New York on 12 October when it was learned that Erin O’Connor, of NBC TV, had been infected with the less serious cutaneous form of anthrax. She appeared to have caught it on 18 September when she opened a letter containing brown granules addressed to top evening news presenter Tom Brokaw. The same day, Judith Miller, the New York Times specialist on terrorism and the Middle East, received a letter containing a suspicious white powder. The offices of the two media organisations were immediately evacuated and closed for several hours while they were searched and staff were told they would be tested for the disease. Also the same day, most major media organisations said they would temporarily suspend all mail operations, with CBS, CNN and AOL Time Warner closing their mailrooms. Between 18 and 26 October, three other employees of CBS and NBC and the daily New York Post were found to have the cutaneous form of the disease. In subsequent days, several spores were found in letters addressed to politicians, including Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. The Capitol, which includes the Senate and the House of Representatives, was thoroughly searched. By the end of the year, US authorities had concluded that the anthrax spores found in the mail sent to the Senate and the media originated in the US, but they did not know who was responsible.
Pressure and obstruction
In early August 2001, the White House said it would no longer cooperate with Lloyd Grove, a Washington Post columnist and contributor to Talk magazine. The White House press office said magazines like Talk were "disrespectful" and "openly mocked" the desire of the president and his wife to protect the privacy of their twin daughters. A few days earlier, the magazine had printed photos of supermodels pretending to be the Bush twins behind prison bars. In May, the daughters were caught by police drinking illegally in a bar after lying about their ages.
John Solomon, of the Associated Press (AP) news agency, was informed in writing by US attorney Mary Jo White that the justice department had obtained details of his telephone calls between 2 and 7 May 2001 as part of an enquiry into violations of secrecy in legal investigations. In a story he wrote on 4 May, Solomon quoted anonymous law enforcement officials who said a phone conversation involving Sen. Robert Torricelli had been recorded as part of a probe into election campaign funding. This was information protected by legal secrecy rules. AP president Louis D. Boccardi said he was "outraged" that the phone records had been sought. Federal regulations allows a journalists’ phone records to be obtained only after "all reasonable alternatives" have been exhausted. Some questioned whether this rule had been followed, since the request for the records was made less than 10 days after the news story appeared.
Only a few hours after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, FBI agents went to the offices of the Internet service providers AOL, Earthlink and Hotmail to install the Carnivore programme on their equipment so as to monitor the e-mail messages of their customers in the hope of finding traces of those responsible for the attacks. Many US civil liberties organisations fear the fight against terrorism will lead to a government ban on the use of encryption technology that guarantees confidentiality of e-mail.
In the wake of the 11 September attacks, a complex system of accreditation was set up by police and the army for journalists wanting to go to Ground Zero, the World Trade Center disaster site. The daily Los Angeles Times said police began confiscating the film of photographers and tourists near the site on 19 September. Many photographers had their access permits withdrawn for not obeying the rules at the site. Don Emmert, the New York photo editor of the French news agency Agence France-Presse, said the system of access was "like a police state." He said photographers organised themselves into pools. "We are only allowed to film what they want us to film," he said. "Those free to move around are military photographers of the US Navy and those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who give the agencies some very nice pictures, but none that showed bodies. The mayor’s office once asked us not to use a photo of firemen watching as the body of one of their colleagues was taken away from the ruins."
In mid-September, the US State Department, which is represented on the board of the Voice of America radio station, asked other board members not to allow an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar to be broadcast on 21 September. "Voice of America is not the voice of Mullah Omar and not the voice of the Taliban," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "It would be inappropriate to spend taxpayers’ money to broadcast the comments of the leader of the movement protecting the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks." A Voice of America official said extracts from the interview were part of a more general report that also included comments by US officials and an expert on Islam and the position of the Northern Alliance, and that Mullah Omar had said in it that he did not think Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. The programme finally went out on 25 September despite the State Department request. Two months later, the station’s managing editor, Bob Reilly, asked his editors to comply with a congressional bill barring the station from broadcasting interviews with "any official of nations that sponsor terrorism or any representative or member of terrorist organizations."
President Bush, citing national security reasons, instructed senior members of his government on 5 October to stop passing confidential information to members of Congress for fear of "leaks" to the press. A few days earlier, the daily Washington Post had reported that members of Congress had been told a new terrorist attack on the United States was very likely. The president withdrew his instruction after hostile reaction from the Congress.
Secretary of state Colin Powell said on CBS television on 10 October that the Qatari TV station Al Jazeera was giving an "undue amount of time and attention to vitriolic and irresponsible statements." After the first US air strikes in Afghanistan began on 7 October, Al Jazeera broadcast a statement by Bin Laden vowing that the United States would "never be safe." A State Department official commented: "Yes to freedom, but we think it’s beyond the pale to provide an open platform for these sorts of violent ideas. We’re concerned everywhere that Osama bin Laden not to be able to use the media to spread his ideas." On 3 October, Powell had called on the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the station’s main shareholder, to make it change its news coverage. The previous day, the US ambassador to Qatar had accused Al Jazeera of biased coverage of the 11 September events and of encouraging anti-American feeling in the Middle East. The station, which has had a permanent office in Kabul since 1998, was one of the few media that stayed in the Afghan capital and the southern city of Kandahar.
Fearing Bin Laden would use his TV appearances to spread propaganda or pass coded messages to his supporters, the White House asked US TV stations on 10 October not to broadcast him directly. "At best, Osama bin Laden’s message is propaganda. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on 10 October. The next day, the government asked the leading US newspapers not to carry Bin Laden’s statements in full.
It was disclosed in mid-October that the Pentagon had arranged, from the start of the air attacks, to buy up all the pictures taken by the Ikonos satellite of the US military operation in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. The agreement barred Space Imaging, owners of Ikonos, from "selling, distributing, sharing or providing" the photos to anyone else, thus blocking the many requests for them by the media. Joan Mears, of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which made the agreement, said the aim was to ensure access to any picture taken of Operation Enduring Freedom. The British daily The Guardian said on 17 October said the US had no need of the pictures itself because it had six photo satellites in orbit, plus a seventh launched the previous week. Four of the satellites, called Keyholes, took photographs between six and 10 times sharper than the one-metre resolution pictures taken by Ikonos. Ikonos supplies the sharpest pictures among non-military satellites.
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 22 October deplored the Washington Post’s publication on 19 October of information about the movements of the US army’s Special Forces units in Afghanistan. He said it was not in the interests of the US to allow Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to know the when, how and why of these operations and accused the paper of endangering the lives of US commandos by revealing their operation before it was complete. He added that he hoped the troops did not find the paper’s informant. Such leaks, he said, were a violation of federal criminal law. The Washington Post replied that its policy was to not publish material that could endanger the operations or lives of soldiers and noted that the Pentagon under Rumsfeld had imposed greater restrictions on the media’s access to military operations and senior officers than in previous wars.
The US House of Representatives on 24 October overwhelmingly passed the so-called "Patriot" (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, giving federal authorities great surveillance powers in the fight against terrorism. It enables the FBI to install on an Internet service provider’s equipment the Carnivore programme to monitor e-mail exchanges and record the Web activities of a terrorist suspect without needing to get permission from a judge. The measures, signed into law by President Bush on 26 October, also ease rules about phone tapping by the government.