Attacks on the Press 2000: United States

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1981, CPJ HAS, AS A MATTER OF STRATEGY and policy, concentrated on press freedom violations and attacks on journalists outside the United States. CPJ aims to concentrate its efforts on those countries where journalists are most in need of international support and protection. As a result, we do not systematically monitor problems facing journalists in any of the developed industrial democracies.

While CPJ recognizes that press freedom requires constant vigilance and aggressive defense at home as well as abroad, we are able to rely within the United States on the thorough, professional efforts of organizations with a primarily domestic focus, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others.

All these organizations, however, expressed serious concerns about challenges to press freedom in the United States during the past year. Many cases involved either state or county court rulings on journalistic privilege and protection under the First Amendment. Some of these related specifically to so-called shield laws designed to protect journalists and the information they gather from being subpoenaed in court. Others involved gag orders that interfered with the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information.

Another category of press freedom violations involved clashes between law enforcement authorities and journalists covering political demonstrations. Journalists were arrested or injured in Washington, D.C., during protests against the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and in Miami during the federal raid to seize the Cuban boy Elián González. A handful of accredited journalists who were arrested by police in either Miami or Washington appear to have been falsely accused of joining demonstrators and, in a few cases, of attacking police. Meanwhile, community broadcasters were selectively denied access to the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

A bill that would have made it a felony for government officials to disclose any kind of “properly classified” information, the Intelligence Authorization Act, also raised great alarm. The bill was, as a New York Times editorial put it, “blind to distinctions between genuinely important secrets and those that serve to shield misconduct, block access to historical papers, or deny Americans the chance to debate critical national issues.” President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure on November 4, saying it might “unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.”

On December 5, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving the federal wiretap law, which imposes criminal and civil liability on anyone who discloses the contents of illegally intercepted communications. The case concerns the broadcast of a telephone call that had been recorded illegally and passed on to a radio station. The court must decide whether the law can be applied to the press without violating the First Amendment.

Because of its far-ranging implications for all journalists around the world, CPJ protested a June 13 incident in Newark, New Jersey in which police commandeered a camera from a local television reporter and posed as journalists in an effort to resolve a hostage crisis. The incident came less than two weeks after police in Luxembourg used a similar tactic against a gunman who had taken 25 children hostage. Luxembourg police commandeered a camera from a local TV station, hid a gun inside it, and dispatched the camera with a police marksman, who posed as a cameraman. When the hostage-taker emerged from the daycare center with a child in one arm and a grenade in the other, the marksman shot him using the hidden gun. While applauding the release of the hostages, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper noted in a statement that such actions “compromise the perceived independence of all journalists and increase the risks they face daily in covering dangerous news stories.”

CPJ also took up the case of journalist Errol Maitland of radio station WBAI. Maitland was assaulted by New York City police officers and charged with disorderly conduct while covering the funeral of Haitian immigrant Patrick Dorismond, who was fatally shot by New York undercover police in March. After being taken into custody, Maitland was initially denied medical treatment despite experiencing chest pain and difficulty breathing. After the intervention of his attorney, Maitland was transferred to the coronary intensive care unit of Kings County Hospital, where he was handcuffed to the bed. On March 28, CPJ sent a letter to New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, urging him to investigate the incident.

Since the widely publicized 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, at least 11 other journalists have been murdered in the United States because of their work. In all but one case, the victims were immigrant journalists working in languages other than English. Most received little or no national media attention. In December 1994, CPJ released a 60-page report on these murders entitled Silenced: The Unsolved Murders of Immigrant Journalists in the United States. CPJ’s overriding concern in the United States continues to be the safety of immigrant journalists and, generally, cases of journalists who are murdered for reasons related directly to their profession. As a U.S. organization that forcefully urges governments around the world to investigate and prosecute the assassinations of local journalists, we believe that it is essential to hold our own government equally accountable when similar crimes are committed at home.

As part of its campaign to eliminate criminal defamation statutes from the legal systems in the Americas, CPJ has expressed concern to U.S. officials about the fact that at least 20 states (including the District of Columbia) still have laws on the books that classify libel as a criminal offense. We believe that such statutes are unconstitutional and would be overturned by the Supreme Court if they were used to prosecute journalists on account of their work. CPJ believes that state legislatures should purge all criminal defamation statutes from the books, in order to set an example to other countries throughout the Americas and the world, where journalists are routinely jailed because of what they write.

The Center for the Freedom of the Press (CFP) in Puerto Rico reported that in December 1999, then-governor Pedro Rosselló signed into law an amendment that strengthens the island’s criminal defamation statutes. The amendment increased the fine for criminal defamation from US$500 to US$5000, plus restitution, and added the penalties of community service and a six-month prison term. Puerto Rican judges can impose all these penalties simultaneously. CPJ finds this development highly disturbing.

Errol Maitland, WBAI

Members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) grabbed Errol Maitland of the radio station WBAI and forced him to the ground while the journalist was covering the funeral of Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian-American who was fatally shot by an NYPD officer on March 16.

Maitland, 49, is a producer for the WBAI program “Wake-up Call” and technical director of the program “Democracy Now,” which is broadcast on the Pacifica Radio network, of which WBAI is an affiliate.

The journalist was covering Dorismond’s funeral live for WBAI via cellular phone. (CPJ reviewed a tape of his coverage.) At about 3 p.m. on March 25, after the memorial service in Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church had ended, Maitland told WBAI that police officers were forcing a woman to the ground. WBAI continued to broadcast Maitland’s report as he identified himself as a WBAI journalist and asked an officer for a statement. Maitland then announced that the police had thrown him to the ground.

“Errol was just holding the cell phone up, trying to keep some distance from the cops,” said Joel Kupferman, an attorney who witnessed the incident as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild. “And suddenly about four officers physically grabbed him and forced him to the ground.” Maitland was arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to the 72nd Precinct.

Although the journalist was experiencing significant pain in the chest, shoulder, back, knees, and head, as well as breathing difficulties, he was initially denied medical treatment, according to his attorney, Michael Tarif Warren, who visited Maitland at the 72nd Precinct on the evening of March 25. After Warren’s intervention, an ambulance took Maitland to Kings County Hospital Center, where he was admitted to the coronary intensive care unit.

A spokesman at the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information confirmed Maitland’s arrest, claiming that the journalist suffered only minor injuries.

On March 28, CPJ wrote a letter to New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, urging him to investigate this incident. On May 3, CPJ received a reply from George A. Grasso, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal affairs. Grasso wrote that since the incident was under investigation, he could not reply to CPJ’s letter in detail. “However,” he wrote, “please be assured that we take very seriously allegations of police misconduct…”

Maitland was able to leave the hospital after 11 days, according to “Wake-up Call” producer Sharan Harper. At year’s end, she informed CPJ that Maitland returned to work in December, but with a reduced schedule due to the injuries he sustained on March 25. Harper said that while nothing was heard of the investigation into the police misconduct, Maitland is expected to go on trial for disorderly conduct in early 2001.

New Jersey Network

Police in Newark, New Jersey, commandeered a television news camera and then posed as journalists in order to resolve a hostage crisis.

On June 13, Newark police commandeered a New Jersey Network (NJN) news crew’s video camera when an alleged hostage-taker demanded that he be interviewed on television. Ali Kemoun had allegedly killed his wife and mother-in-law and was holding his nine-year-old son hostage in his house when he made the demand.

Posing as a journalist, a police officer then entered the house in a ruse designed to distract the hostage-taker by conducting an “interview.” The NJN camera was not actually taken into the house, according to news reports. Instead, police substituted a Newark Fire Department camera just before starting the bogus interview. Under an agreement with police, Kemoun released his son before beginning the interview. But he quickly realized the cameraman was in fact a police officer and ran to an upper floor of his house. Police returned the NJN camera two hours after taking it, but retained the tape as evidence for a full day.

Newark mayor Sharpe James apologized for the confiscation, according to news reports. But Mayor James added that police thought it was necessary to pose as reporters to “prevent [the hostage-taker] from doing anything drastic.”

The Newark incident came less than two weeks after a similar case in Luxembourg. On June 1, Luxembourg police commandeered a camera from a local TV station, hid a gun inside the camera, and used it to shoot a hostage-taker.

On June 15, CPJ issued a press release expressing deep concern about both incidents. “While we understand that police often find themselves in desperate situations, and that some law experts believe the confiscation of a camera in such a situation is legal, we hope this disturbing tactic does not become a trend,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper.

James Edwin Richards, Neighborhood News

Richards, the editor of an e-mail newsletter covering the high-crime Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, California, was shot to death at around 4:15 a.m, while walking near his house.

Neighborhood News reported on petty theft, drug sales, and other local crimes. Richards was also a longtime community activist and block captain for his community’s Model Neighborhood Program.

Press reports quoted Venice councilwoman Ruth Galanter as saying that Richards’ murder “appears to have been a straightforward assassination.” She added that Richards had made many enemies in the course of his work as a journalist and activist.

At the time of his murder, Los Angeles Police Department officers said that they had no suspects and were not sure about the motive for the crime.