Attacks on the Press 2001: United States

Since its founding in 1981, CPJ has, as a matter of strategy and policy, concentrated on press freedom violations and attacks against journalists outside the United States. Within the country, a vital press freedom community marshals its resources and expertise to defend journalists’ rights. CPJ aims to focus its efforts on those nations where journalists most need international support and protection.

However, CPJ did take up a number of U.S. cases in 2001, either because they were particularly serious, or because they had broad international implications. For the first time in its 20-year history, CPJ included an American on its annual list of imprisoned journalists. Two American journalists were killed in 2001: Free-lance photographer William Biggart died covering the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, and Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the tabloid Sun newspaper, died from inhalation anthrax in October.

On August 7, CPJ sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft expressing concern about the detention of journalist Vanessa Leggett on contempt of court charges.

Leggett, a 33-year-old free-lance writer based in Houston, Texas, cited the confidentiality of her sources in refusing to turn over her research to a grand jury investigating the 1997 murder of a Houston socialite. CPJ’s letter noted that the detention “sends exactly the wrong signal to authoritarian governments, who may now show even less restraint in using state power to restrict press freedom.” Leggett, who was released on January 4, is believed to have been imprisoned longer than any journalist in U.S. history.

The Leggett case was not the only effort the Justice Department made to breach the journalist-source relationship. In August, Associated Press reporter John Solomon received notification that his home phone records had been subpoenaed in an effort to learn the source for a story on organized crime.

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., dramatically changed the media landscape in the United States and raised a number of troubling press freedom issues.

While the press earned widespread public support for its coverage of the attacks, some media observers questioned whether the U.S. media abandoned objectivity in covering the domestic response to terrorism as well as U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Commentators in the U.S., but particularly in Europe and the Middle East, sharply criticized some of the U.S. media for its shallow coverage of Islam, for giving minimal coverage to civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and for timid reporting on such controversial U.S. policies as the detention without charge of hundreds of terrorism suspects.

The Bush administration also took several steps to influence both domestic and international coverage, particularly of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Just a few days after September 11, the U.S. State Department contacted the Voice of America (VOA), a broadcast organization funded by the federal government, and expressed concern about the radio broadcast of an exclusive interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. “We didn’t think that the American taxpayer … should be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban,” explained State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. In December, Spozhmai W. Maiwandi, the VOA journalist who conducted the interview, was forced out of her job as head of the Pashto Service. Around the same time, VOA chief Robert Reilly distributed a memo barring interviews with officials from “nations that sponsor terrorism.” VOA staffers criticized the policy as interfering with the station’s newsgathering function.

On October 3, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar to use his influence to rein in Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based, Arabic-language satellite station bankrolled by the Qatari government. The request stemmed from concern about the station’s alleged anti-American bias and its repeated airing of a 1998 exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden.

A week later, on October 10, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked a group of U.S. television executives to use caution when airing pre-recorded messages from Osama bin Laden and his associates. Rice argued that such statements were at best propaganda and could contain coded instructions to terrorist cells. Network executives agreed to consider editing future bin Laden videotapes to remove language that could incite violence against Americans.

While the appropriateness of Rice’s conference call with the executives was debated in the United States, the actions taken by the Bush administration seemed to embolden repressive governments around the world to crack down on their own domestic media. In Russia, a presidential adviser said President Vladimir Putin planned to study U.S. limitations on reporting about terrorists in order to develop rules for Russian media.

A new section of CPJ’s Web site (, called “Covering the New War,” tracked other war-related press freedom abuses in countries around the globe, including Benin, China, Indonesia, Israel, Liberia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

While journalists covering the war in Afghanistan risked detention by the Taliban as well as armed attack, many also complained about a lack of access to U.S. forces in the field. In December, several news organizations protested when reporters at a Marine base near Kandahar were confined to a warehouse to prevent them from photographing injured soldiers who were being transferred to the base for treatment after a friendly-fire incident.

Later that month, Afghan tribal forces detained three photojournalists at the behest of U.S. Special Forces operating in the Tora Bora region, according to The New York Times. Memory cards containing images of U.S. soldiers were seized from two digital cameras.

On January 31, 2002, CPJ also sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting clarification of the November 13, 2001, missile strike on the Kabul bureau of Al-Jazeera. The U.S. military described the building as a “known” Al Qaeda facility without providing any evidence. Despite the fact that the facility had housed the Al-Jazeera office for nearly two years and had several satellite dishes mounted on its roof, the U.S. military claimed it had no indications the building was used as Al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau.

A series of anthrax-laced letters sent to U.S. media figures and politicians in October created widespread anxiety among the press. Tainted letters were sent to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and to the New York Post. The child of an ABC news employee and several American Media Inc. employees in Florida were also infected, although the source of the anthrax could not be positively identified. American Media publishes supermarket tabloids, including The National Enquirer, which covers mostly celebrity gossip (although the paper did run stories attacking Osama bin Laden). The Sun, where Robert Stevens worked as photo editor, is filled with bizarre human-interest stories and astrological predictions. At the end of the year, authorities had not been able to link the letters to the September 11 attacks.

July 20

Vanessa Leggett, free-lancer

Leggett, a Houston-based free-lancer, was jailed without bail after refusing to hand over research for a book she was writing about the 1997 murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. Leggett, who is believed to have served in prison longer than any journalist in U.S. history, was released on January 4.

The journalist, 33, was asked to give her research materials to a federal grand jury. These materials include tapes of interviews she conducted with murder suspect Roger Angleton, the victim’s brother-in-law, shortly before he committed suicide.

Since the Watergate era, federal prosecutors have needed permission from the U.S. attorney general before ordering a journalist to reveal his or her sources. The last federal jailing of journalists was in 1991, when four journalists were briefly detained for refusing to testify in a corruption trial.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker was quoted in the fall issue of The News Media & The Law as saying, “She was not handled as a member of the media, so [the department] would not have followed the procedure that we have laid out for subpoenas of members of the media.”

Leggett, who was clearly investigating a news story for public dissemination, refused to comply with the subpoena, citing confidentiality of her sources. In a closed hearing on July 19, District Judge Melinda Harmon found Leggett in contempt of court and gave her a one-day grace period to surrender to authorities. Leggett turned herself in on July 20.

Leggett’s lawyer, Mike DeGeurin, filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit asking that bail be granted immediately and that the appeal be handled in an expedited manner. The court refused bail but granted the request for an expedited appeal hearing, which was held on August 15.

The Appeals Court denied requests by news organizations to argue on Leggett’s behalf during the hearing. Initially, the court had closed the hearing to the public, but after the news organizations filed an emergency motion, the courtroom was opened on August 14.

During the August 15 hearing before a three-judge panel, Justice Department attorney Paula Offenhauser admitted that prosecutors were not sure what they were after.

But on August 17, the panel of the Appeals Court upheld Judge Harmon’s ruling, saying, “The district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Leggett incarcerated for contempt.” DeGeurin told CPJ that the Appeals Court panel assumed Leggett to be a journalist but contended that reporter’s privilege carries less weight in a federal grand jury investigation.

DeGeurin appealed to the full court, but his request for a rehearing was denied in November. The Appeals Court also denied DeGeurin’s motion to release Leggett during the appeals process.

DeGeurin then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on December 31 asking for a review of the appeals court decision.

Leggett was released on January 4, 2002, the day the grand jury’s term expired. “I’m very grateful to be free. I don’t think anyone realizes how precious freedom is until it’s threatened or taken away from them,” Leggett told CPJ shortly after her release.

The appeal before the Supreme Court, however, remained important because Leggett could still be summoned as a witness in any future trial related to the Angleton murder. She could also face criminal contempt charges.

At press time, the Supreme Court was still reviewing the case.

September 11

William Biggart, free-lancer

Biggart, a free-lance news photographer, was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The journalist’s body was found on September 15 in the rubble at Ground Zero, near the bodies of several firefighters. Biggart had rushed to the scene with his camera shortly after hearing about the attacks.

September 21

Voice of America

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of State, the Voice of America (VOA) delayed airing a story that contained parts of an exclusive interview with the leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The federally funded broadcaster’s decision came after Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and senior National Security Council officials contacted members of VOA’s board of governors to express their concern that broadcasting the interview would amount to providing a platform to terrorists, according to The Washington Post. The VOA board then relayed these concerns to staff members.

The news report, by VOA’s Ed Warner, was scheduled to air on September 21. It contained excerpts from Warner’s exclusive interview with Omar and also quoted U.S. president George W. Bush’s September 20 address to Congress.

Warner’s report also featured commentary by John Esposito, director of the Center of Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and by a spokesman for the Northern Alliance military coalition.

When asked in a September 24 press briefing to explain the State Department’s opposition to VOA airing the Omar interview, department spokesperson Richard Boucher said, “We didn’t think that the American taxpayer, the Voice of America, should be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban.”

VOA ultimately aired the piece on September 25, despite State Department objections. The following day, Boucher expressed regret over VOA’s decision to go ahead with the report and said that airing the interview was not in any way consistent with the traditions of the Voice of America.

VOA is an international multimedia broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government. Since 1998, when it was removed from direct State Department control, VOA has operated under the oversight of a government-appointed board of governors, although the secretary of state or his designee still sits on the board.

News of the controversy prompted more than 100 VOA employees to send a letter to newspapers protesting that their work was being censored, according to local news reports.

On September 27, CPJ issued an alert regarding the Department of State’s attempt to dictate journalistic content at VOA.

A month later, Spozhmai W. Maiwandi, the journalist who conducted the interview with Mullah Omar, was involuntarily reassigned.

October 5

Robert Stevens, The Sun

Stevens, 63, a photo editor at the tabloid newspaper The Sun, died of inhalation anthrax in Boca Raton, Florida. Authorities opened a criminal investigation into the killing but have not determined where the anthrax came from. However, officials did confirm that the type of anthrax that killed Stevens is the same strain that was mailed to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.