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United States11 October 2001

Between the pull of patriotism and self-censorship
The US media in torment after 11 September

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Arrests and calls to order

In the first days after the attacks of 11 September, the American media certainly adopted a common position which was not to "add horror on horror" and to take part in the resurgence of patriotic national feeling. In doing this, those in charge followed the wishes of a large majority of the public which reacted strongly to the first images shown after the attacks. Added to this were very strict rules of access to the site of the disaster, injunctions by the various authorities along with sanctions against recalcitrant photographers.

The perimeter of the World Trade Center was quickly secured and surrounded by US security forces after the confusion of the first few days. "The New York police were generally co-operative with the press and allowed comings and goings on the site. The arrival on the scene of the National Guard put an end to this situation," remembered M. Moutot of AFP. Barriers appeared all around the site, the security perimeter was extended by several streets to the south and north of Manhattan. A complex system of accreditation was then established Involving both police and the military. According to the daily Los Angeles Times, from 19 September onwards the police started seizing the films of photographers and tourists close to the site. Many photographers had their access passes withdrawn for failing to respect the orders of the authorities. The American press freedom organisation The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) said that at least four journalists were arrested and accused of breaking the conditions of access to the World Trade Center site. Among them was Ian Austin, photographer for the Agency Aurora Quanta Productions, who was detained for three days before being released without any charge. All journalists working for the daily Dallas Daily News had their accreditation withdrawn because of the arrest and "bad conduct" of one of their photographers.

In an interview with RSF, Don Emmert, head of photo at AFP in New York discussed the consequences of the restrictions and the calls to order on the work of his agency. "In photo terms, whole segments of this drama have not been covered. The reason is simple : they wouldn’t let us work. We could not satisfy the demands of our clients from abroad. For instance, we could not go to the hospitals and we can no longer freely take pictures of the World Trade Center after the disaster."

"The office of the mayor asked us not to show firefighters recovering the bodies of their colleagues." continued Don Emmert, who also spoke out against the current working conditions on the site. "It’s like a police state, he said. They let us shoot in organized pools only what the authorities want us to shoot. The ones who move freely around are the Marine photographers and the photographers from the Federal Emergency Agency. They supply agencies with very pretty photographs Even if the American press continues to carry photos of the ruins of the World Trade Centre, all media, including the tabloids, have to accept pools, of shots taken from a distance and showing only the wide angle of the site.

For some journalists working in New York the reply to the debate on the absence of images of the victims of the World Trade Center is very simple. "I quite honestly doubt that that there is much left to show," suggests the French daily Le Monde’s correspondent. His view is shared by Richard Hetu of the Canadian daily La Presse, who believes that the bodies literally "disintegrated". The World Trade Center has become an enormous crematorium," he continued. "As I wrote in one article, the dust from the debris of the World Trade Center that we are breathing still probably includes the ashes of the victims."

America should not speak with the same voice as its enemies

Several other incidents, comparable to press freedom violations, characterised the life of the media after the 11 September. They were caused by interventions by the authorities critical of one media or another, or by the owners of the media themselves who saw it as a good moment to sanction a particular journalist for "subversive" comments, and sometimes by both at once, without being able to establish with that media what the real reason for the sanction was. So when the television network ABC decided on 19 September to no longer broadcast images of the two planes slamming into the World Trade Center towers, it was officially so as not to "banalise the dramatic event". Many observers suspect however that it was the result of pressure from the authorities and in particular because of a desire expressed by the owner of Disney.

The most flagrant examples of corporate censorship - when media bosses sanction a journalist for his or her opinions - came from the dailies The Texas City Sun and the Daily Courier in the state of Oregon. On 23 September Les Daughty Jr, owner of the Texas City Sun for 17 years writes an apology to his readers for an article by one of his editors-in-chief Ron Gutting, who said in an article critical of President Bush on the day after the attacks, that he was "flying around the country like a scared child seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare". In an article on the front page of the newspaper Daughty apologised to all the leaders of the country and particularly to President George Bush for having published such an article which could only provoke "anger and disgust". Ron Gutting was sacked from the newspaper.

His colleague Dan Guthrie of the Daily Courier at Grant’s Pass met the same fate and for similar reasons. He wrote on the 15 September on a humorous page in the newspaper that George Bush had "skedaddled" in the face of the attacks, accusing him of being "an embarrassment" for "hiding in a Nebraska hole" on the day of the terrorist attacks. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Dennis Mack wrote for his readers that to say that the head of state was hiding at a time when America was trying to unite after the bloody attacks was neither responsible nor appropriate. As a result Dan Guthrie lost his job but for "personal reasons", according to his employer.`

In neither case was there any apparent pressure on the part of the authorities. It was the fierce reactions of the newspapers’ readers that were decisive in the decision to sack the journalists. In another case, that was widely reported in the US press star television presenter Bill Maher drew a strong reaction from the White House. On his talk show "Politically Incorrect" on ABC, Bill Maher said on 17 September, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, It’s not cowardly". These comments drew the rage of many viewers and led to the immediate withdrawal of the programme’s two main sponsors Federal Express and Sears. A number of television stations linked to the ABC network, mainly in New York and Washington, pulled the Bill Maher programme, especially after White House spokesman Ari Fleisher called his remarks "unpatriotic". He added, "It was a terrible thing to say and it’s unfortunate." He went on, "The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do". Journalists who heard his statement noted later that "watch what they say" did not appear in the text of this official record of the conference.

Another decision of the US administration that drew much attention was the attempt by the authorities to block the broadcasting at the end of September of an interview with the spiritual leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar on the Congress-financed Voice of America. The station that is broadcast to 50 countries worldwide, to explain America to the world, normally has reasonable editorial independence. Claude Porsella, head of the VOA French service told RSF about the content of the programme. "One of my colleagues in the Pashto language service had the scoop of his life: an interview with Mullah Omar. VOA never intended to broadcast the entire interview, extracts of which were included in some general reporting including comments from the US Administration, analysis by an Islamic expert and the position of the Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar said he was convinced that Osama Bin Laden could not be behind the attacks." The State Department, which has a seat on the VOA board, called on the other board members to ban the interview, scheduled for 28 September. "VOA is not the voice of Mullah Omar and is not the voice of the Taliban", said one American official. He said it would be "inappropriate" to spend the backers money to broadcast comments of the head of the movement who was protecting the terrorists behind the 11 September attacks.

"This decision caused huge dismay among VOA journalists," said Claude Porsella. The head of news protested and a petition was signed by 150 journalists. Faced with this reaction and strong interest in the press, VOA reversed its decision and decided to go ahead with the broadcast on 25 September. So far there have been no sanctions on the part of the US Administration. "We won a battle," said Claude Porsella. "But I doubt the story will end there. Heads will probably roll," he feared.

On this occasion the VOA journalists were able to win the solidarity of their colleagues in the major US media, particularly the written press. In the same way the influential daily The Washington Post opened its columns to journalist from VOA before taking a position in an editorial on 26 September. This read: "The episode revealed an impulse to squelch facts that is never far beneath the surface in time of war or quasi-war, an impulse that is hardly less noxious when it retreats promptly under challenge. "But the time for editors to resist the censoring and self-censoring instinct is before it is acted upon, not after. We hear frequently that the only way to beat the terrorists is to hold on to this nation’s freedoms. Those include honoring Americans’ right to hear commentary that bothers some and to glimpse the thoughts of enemies."

At the beginning of October, the American authorities once more expressed their annoyance towards the media which allow a voice to "enemies of America". This time it was the Arabic Television station Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar that drew the ire of Bush Administration by broadcasts footage and interviews with Taliban leaders or with Osama Bin Laden. The station is famous for its 1998 interview with the man they call "the head of El Qaeda". This interview was broadcast uncut, on several occasions, after 11 September. On " September the American ambassador in Qatar officially intervened with the authorities in the country to protest against this "incendiary rhetoric" by the station, which is accused of supplying "biased" coverage of the events of 11 September as well as "encouraging anti-American feelings" in the Middle East. On 3 October following an interview with the US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa el-Thani, Emir of Qatar, and main shareholder in the station, said that US officials had asked him to use his authority to influence the coverage. The Emir said he would not interfere with the editorial policy of Al-Jazeera. The US Administration again complained about the broadcast, the day after the first US air strikes, the words of Osama Bin Laden warning the United States that it would "live in fear". A State Department official told Reuters: "Yes to freedom but we think it’s beyond the pale to provide an open platform for these sort of violent ideas. We’re concerned everywhere that Osama bin Laden not to be able to use the media to spread his ideas". At the same time President Bush would be willing to speak on the station. Al-Jazeera, which has had a permanent studio in Kabul since 1998, is one of the rare media still present in the Afghan capital and at Kandahar. Known for the quality of its programmes, his professionalism and independence, the "CNN of the Arab world" is regularly criticized by Arab countries which fear the platform it gives to opposition of all kinds.

Conclusion: Is the First Amendment in danger?

US lawyer and expert on the American Constitution Floyd Abrams says that America often debates issues like patriotism and free speech n times of crisis. He considers that the First Amendment is put to the test when the country is too. When the country felt threatened, its existence challenged, the First Amendment and its values were sometimes subordinated to other priorities.

This opinion is apparently shared by several US organisations for defence of press freedom, who believe it is too soon to become alarmed by the events that have been outlined in this report. Lucy Daglish, head of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said she was not unduly concerned. She felt that the media, like the rest of society had become hypersensitive, after the attacks. Her organisation had noted the consequences of the 11 September attacks, but without taking up a position. In an interview with head of the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) Ann Cooper and deputy head Joel Simon, the main US-based worldwide press freedom organisation, said they consider that much more serious violations of press freedom were going on in other parts of the world. Ann Cooper said she thought the US State Department’s criticism of VOA demonstrated an almost instinctive reflex by governments in times of conflict, not to broadcast the words of their adversaries. In some countries this had the force of law, she said. In Russia media which published interviews with Chechen faced legal action. In Angola, police had detained journalists who quoted a rebel commander. "The crucial difference is that VOA broadcast the interview, despite the opposition of the State Department and has so far not suffered any sanction." But Ann Coooper stressed that it was the tolerance of a free press that kept democracy alive. She did not feel that the press was in danger in the United States. "American journalists don’t need us to defend them. They have their media and the entire profession to back them in case of danger."

Tim Golstein of Columbia School of Journalism also shares this view and is confident that the American media can defend its own interests. "patriotism, independence, freedom of speech: we debate these questions practically every day whether in newspapers or in university lecture halls. But it is far too soon to draw conclusions from this debate." Media who had so far done an excellent job in covering the attacks should now try to do the same for the rest: continue to do the same good job, but in time of conflict.

Following this investigation in Paris and New York, Reporters Sans Frontières nevertheless considers that a number of points of concern remain:

* Several attempts by the US authorities aimed at regulating the work of the media have been reported: Arrests of photographers near the World Trade Center, the desire of the security forces to filter images taken at the site, an attempt to ban an interview with Mullah Omar on VOA and the pressure on the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera to stop broadcasting footage of Osama Bin Laden. All these interventions, in whatever context, are unacceptable..

* Moves against confidentiality on the internet, along with a certain number of measures within the "anti-terrorist" legislation that is currently being examined, constitute a real threat to individual and collective freedoms

* The symbiosis which appears to operate between the tone of the main audio-visual industry and official US policy could eventually militate against the watchdog role of the media in a democracy.

* The cases outlined of corporate censorship, such as the sackings of the two journalists for comments considered outrageous, could lead to self-censorship and an absence of criticism in the press.

* The setting up of "pools" of photographers at the World Trade Center site and the complexities of the accreditation system do not bode well for a free and independent coverage of the actions taken by the United States in reprisal for the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

At this difficult time for the United States, in these times of emotion, even of legitimate anger, RSF has nevertheless been able to verify the strength of the principles of the First Amendment in this country. Among the numerous articles devoted to this subject by the main daily newspapers, RSF has especially noted the reaction of a reader of the New York Times to the debate provoked by the words of Bill Maher. "It is the television stations that drop "Politically Incorrect" and the advertisers that boycott the show, who are the ones guilty of a lack of patriotism, not its host Bill Maher. It would be chilling if one of the first casualties of our war for freedom was our right to debate all opinions vigorously, no matter how unpopular, here at home. Whatever the nature of Mr Maher’s misinterpreted remarks, his rights and those of his guests to exercise freedom of speech should not be silenced." (Scott Blakeman, New York, 26 September, 2001).



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The US media in torment after 11 September

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