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Europe / United-States23 May 2002

Press freedom being tested by Bush Administration’s anti-terrorist policy

image 85 x 82 (JPEG) As President George W. Bush began his visit to Europe (including France on 26-27 May), Reporters Without Borders notes the limitations on press freedom imposed by the US government since the attacks of last 11 September , such as undermining the confidentiality of Internet messages and restrictions on access to the military base at Guantanamo and to military operations in Afghanistan. In this country, medias were bombed and at least five journalists and media assistants were beaten or threatened with death by US soldiers or their Afghan allies.

In United-States, the foiling of a government plan to use disinformation and the outcry at President Bush’s decision to no longer pass on certain confidential material to Congress for fear of leaks to the media show the robustness of democratic traditions beyond the understandable emotion aroused by the 11 September attacks.

Since the United States boasts of being the land of human rights, these steps are exploited by dictatorships. The Chinese authorities now call the separatists in the western province of Xinjiang "terrorists" to justify repression and shutting down publications. Respect for human rights has been downgraded in the foreign policy of the world’s great power. The United States is thus less concerned by abuses in Chechnya since Russia declared itself on the US side in the fight against terrorism. When he was received by President Vladimir Putin, the secretary-general of NATO borrowed the the official Russian parlance and spoke of "the plague of terrorism in Chechnya."

Confidentiality of Internet material in danger

Only a few hours after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, FBI agents went to the offices of Internet service providers AOL, Earthlink and Hotmail to install their Carnivore programme on the servers to monitor the e-mail of all their customers in the hope of finding traces of the attackers on the Internet.

This Internet monitoring was formalised on 24 October when the US House of Representatives passed the so-called Patriot Act, allowing the FBI to install Carnivore on any Internet service provider to monitor all e-mail messages and keep track of the web-surfing of people suspected of having contacts with a foreign power. To do this, the only permission needed is from a special legal entity whose activities are secret. The measures also eased the rules about phone-tapping. As well as the invasion of individual privacy, the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is threatened by this blank cheque given to the FBI.

Encryption technology, which allows Internet users to code their messages to keep them private, is under attack from the FBI’s Magic Lantern programme, a virus that can be sent to targets by e-mail without their knowledge and which records their keystrokes and thus the key to the encryption codes. After the press reported this, the FBI denied it had such a device, but admitted it was working on one.

War in Afghanistan: news under tight surveillance

From the first day of the US military’s Operation Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, the Pentagon tried to control the filming of the war by signing an exclusive contract with the firm Space Imaging, preventing the company from "selling, distributing, sharing or providing" pictures taken by the Ikonos civilian satellite to the media, which were thus deprived of pictures of the results of the US bombings taken by this satellite. Ikonos is the most efficient of the civilian satellites.

A dozen media organisations covering the military operations were several times prevented from doing their work by US Special Forces troops and at least five journalists and media assistants were beaten or threatened with death by US soldiers or their Afghan allies. On 10 April this year, Ebadullah Ebadi, translator and assistant for the US daily The Boston Globe, was badly beaten by Afghan troops fighting with the US Special Forces, as the American soldiers watched. The Washington Post said that compared with recent wars, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has imposed greater restrictions on journalists’ access to military operations and senior officers.

Restrictions were also decreed at the government-controlled radio Voice of America. The head of the station, Bob Reilly, asked editors to comply with the terms of a law adopted by Congress forbidding the radio to broadcast interviews with "any official of nations that sponsor terrorism or any representative or member of terrorist organisations."

The foreign media were not spared either. On 12 November, US troops bombed and seriously damaged the Kabul offices of the Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera. In February this year, the Pentagon refused to open an enquiry into the bombing, saying the building was suspected of harbouring Al-Qaeda militants and was therefore a military target. No apology was made to Al-Jazeera, which is frequently accused by the US government of giving too much air time to Osama Bin Laden and "encouraging anti-American feeling" in the Middle East. In October, US forces also bombed the installations of the taliban controlled media, Radio Shariat, and the state television (banned since 1996).

Difficult access to Guantanamo

Journalists from CNN, CBS, The Army Times and others were given permission on 11 January this year to photograph and film in Kabul the departure of about 20 prisoners being flown to the US naval base at Guantanamo, in Cuba. After the prisoners were flown out, the journalists were told they could not use their pictures. A Pentagon spokesman said they violated international agreements because they were "degrading" for the prisoners. Several media ignored the order.

A few months later, the Pentagon cited security concerns when it banned the media from covering the transfer of prisoners from Camp X-Ray to Camp Delta, both at the Guantanamo base. On 26 April, an army spokesman said that "we won’t comment on the transfer of prisoners until it’s over." Until then, the media had had some access to report on the building of Camp Delta.

The temptation to manipulate the media

The Bush Administration has several times tried to curb or control the flow of news. This anti-freedom temptation met resistance, which showed the country’s solid democratic traditions.

On 5 October last year, President Bush, citing national security needs, instructed senior members of his government to stop sending certain confidential material to members of Congress for fear it would be leaked to the media. A few days earlier, the Washington Post had run a story saying members of Congress had been told a new terrorist attack on the United States was very likely. The president soon withdrew in the face of strong protests by members of Congress.

On 19 February, the New York Times reported that the Defense Department’s Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) had proposed planting disinformation in the foreign media. At that time, the government feared the war against terrorism would be seen by foreigners as a war against Islam. The outcry set off by these revelations led White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to say President Bush knew nothing about the OSI project and had ordered the OSI closed down because, according to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "the Pentagon does not lie to the American people" or to "foreign audiences."

Setting a bad example

Some authoritarian countries, such as Tunisia, have rallied to the anti-terrorist cause as a way to crack down on critical media by accusing them of siding with terrorists. In China, the communist regime has stepped up its repression of unauthorized publications in the Xinjiang region, where the majority of people are Uigurs, and where Islamic separatists have become "terrorists" funded by Osama bin Laden. Chinese authorities in this region have seized and destroyed many books and other publications. A local communist party official openly admitted that "the anti-terrorist campaign around the world since September 11 has helped the Chinese government increase repression of the Muslim minority" in the province.

When he visited Russia last November, NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson told his Russian host, who had just sided with the United States in the fight against terrorism, "we certainly see the plague of terrorism in Chechnya with different eyes now." The remark was typical of the way human rights have been shunted into the background of American foreign policy. The comment also pleased the Russian army, which is trying to wage a secret war in Chechnya and is strictly controlling media access to the region.

Recommendations

Reporters Without Borders calls on US President George W. Bush to:
-  respect the confidentiality of information circulating on the Internet, notably by ordering the FBI not to use spyware such as "Carnivore" and "Magic Lantern" without rigorous legal controls.
-  respect the free movement of journalists in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that has been ratified by the United States.
-  ensure that respect for human rights is once more at the heart of US foreign policy.

Reporters Without Borders calls on the German, French and Italian heads of state to support these recommendations and defend them when they meet their American counterpart.



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