Attacks on the Press 2002: United States

The U.S. government took aggressive measures in 2002 to shield some of its activities from press scrutiny. These steps not only reduced access for U.S. reporters but had a global ripple effect, with autocratic leaders citing U.S. government actions to justify repressive policies.

While access to U.S. forces in Afghanistan improved somewhat in 2002, journalists who encountered U.S. troops in the field did not always receive a friendly reception. In February, U.S. soldiers detained Washington Post reporter Doug Struck at gunpoint and prevented him from investigating reports of civilian casualties. In late August, U.S. Special Forces involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden confiscated film from New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks and also forced him to erase images from his digital camera. Some U.S. journalists worry that these actions bode ill for coverage of a possible military invasion of Iraq, although the Defense Department has pledged to “embed” journalists with U.S. forces and has even provided journalists with special training designed to allow them to accompany forces safely.

In some cases, the restrictive measures extended to more mundane reporting inside the United States. In March, U.S. military police handcuffed Fox News cameraman Gregg Gursky and confiscated his videotape. Gursky was on Pentagon property when he filmed Virginia police pulling over a pickup truck outside the Pentagon. Although Gursky had Defense Department credentials, officials claimed he needed a security escort to film on Pentagon property. The next day, officials returned the tape to Fox.

In September, Washington police detained at least five reporters covering demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. One of the journalists, Larry Towell of Magnum photo agency, told CPJ that police ignored press passes and seized the journalists without warning. They were held in a detention center for several hours before being released without charge.

The U.S. government also took measures to limit coverage of internal policy debates. New Justice Department guidelines instituted in October give government agencies wide latitude to reject public requests made under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Bush administration would support withholding documents as long as “a sound legal basis” for doing so exists. The administration of Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, withheld documents only if disclosure was deemed “harmful.”

The Homeland Security Bill passed in November imposes criminal penalties on government employees who disclose information about “critical infrastructure”–including communications, transportation, and health–voluntarily provided to the government by private companies. The Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press charged that the provision was inserted at the behest of businesses and could prevent the public from receiving timely information about threats to public health and welfare.

Journalists were also denied access to deportation hearings for hundreds of immigrants detained in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. In August, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, ruled that the automatic closure of these proceedings violates the First Amendment, noting that, “The only safeguard on this extraordinary governmental power is the public, deputizing the press as the guardian of their liberty.” Immigration hearings are now open in that court’s jurisdiction but are closed in the rest of the country. The issue may eventually go before the Supreme Court.

The government imposed tight restrictions on coverage of U.S. military detainees at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The camp is shrouded in a green tarp, making it impossible to photograph it from a distance. Journalists who are given access face a number of restrictions and are always accompanied by an escort. Secrecy is so pervasive that the U.S. government did not respond to allegations from the Qatar-based, Arabic-language satellite network Al-Jazeera that one of its cameramen was among the detainees. In a September 27 letter to U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, CPJ also requested information about the alleged detention of the journalist. By year’s end, Rumsfeld had not responded.

CPJ did receive a response to a January 31 letter sent to Rumsfeld requesting information about the circumstances surrounding the November 13, 2001, missile attack on Al-Jazeera’s Kabul, Afghanistan, offices. In its February 26 reply, the Pentagon said the building was a “known al-Qaeda facility” but provided no evidence to support that contention. CPJ continues to investigate the incident.

A CPJ report released on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks expressed concern that authoritarian governments have appropriated the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify press freedom restrictions in their countries. The report, titled “Looking Forward, Looking Back,” noted that governments in Eritrea, Russia, and Zimbabwe have labeled journalists who criticize those regimes as “terrorists.”

Aside from access to information issues, other troubling legal developments in 2002 affect U.S. journalists. Although Texas free-lancer Vanessa Leggett–who was jailed for five months in 2001 for refusing to turn over her research to federal prosecutors–was released in early January, publisher David W. Carson and editor Ed Powers of The New Observer in Kansas were convicted in July of criminal defamation, a state misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in prison. The paper had falsely reported that the mayor of one county actually lived in another. In November, the journalists were sentenced to fines and probation; they are appealing their convictions. CPJ has long maintained that journalists should never be jailed for their work and has campaigned worldwide against criminal defamation laws. While criminal libel prosecutions are extremely rare in the United States, many states still have such laws on the books.

U.S. journalists and media outlets were also subject to legal proceedings outside the United States in 2002. In December, the U.N. International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that former Washington Post reporter Jonathan Randal, who had been subpoenaed in the trial of a former Bosnian official accused of genocide, did not have to testify in the case. The decision stated that war correspondents could not be compelled to testify unless “the evidence sought is of direct and important value in determining a core issue in the case … and cannot reasonably be obtained elsewhere.” CPJ worked with lawyers and journalists around the world to support Randal’s case.

The Hague tribunal’s ruling, however, only extends to war correspondents, not all journalists. The issue of compelled testimony could re-emerge as the international legal system expands, particularly with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is scheduled for 2003. The ICC will have the authority to try individuals accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The growing threat of international legal action also came into play when Australia’s High Court ruled in December that an Australian businessman could pursue a defamation case in Australia against the U.S.-based company Dow Jones because of an article published in the business magazine Barron’s and posted on its Web site. Dow Jones, which owns Barron’s, argued that the case should have been pursued in the United States, where the magazine is published.

The early 2002 abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl forced U.S. foreign correspondents to confront their own vulnerabilities. They did so by re-evaluating their routines and enrolling in increasingly popular journalist security courses.

In May, CPJ Washington, D.C., representative Frank Smyth testified before the U.S. Senate and called on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to refrain from using non-U.S. journalists as spies. The CIA has been barred since the 1970s from using U.S. journalists as spies except in extraordinary circumstances, but the ban does not apply to foreign journalists. In his testimony, Smyth noted that, “The perception–or even the rumor–that a local journalist works with the CIA would obviously put him or her at considerable risk.” The policy also endangers U.S. journalists by creating the impression that all journalists are potential spies; Daniel Pearl’s captors falsely accused him of working for both U.S. and Israeli intelligence.

Partly in response to Pearl’s killing, CPJ launched a new journalist security program in 2002 to provide journalists with authoritative and practical information about security, including safety equipment, hostile-environment training, health and life insurance, posttraumatic stress counseling, and field tips from veteran correspondents. CPJ will publish a journalist security handbook in the spring of 2003.

While journalists working inside the United States face relatively little physical risk, in October, Los Angeles police charged a man with threatening Los Angeles Times reporter Anita M. Busch, who was working on a story about an extortion plot against actor Steven Seagal. Convicted drug offender Alexander Proctor allegedly told an FBI informant that a private detective working for Seagal had hired him to threaten Busch. Proctor allegedly broke her car window and left a package containing a dead fish with a rose in its mouth along with a sign reading “Stop.” Another journalist, Vanity Fair reporter Ned Zeman, was threatened at gunpoint in August while working on the same story.

March 18

Gregg Gursky, Fox News

Gursky, a cameraman with Fox News, was on the property of the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters, known as the Pentagon, when he filmed Virginia police pulling over a pickup truck outside the Pentagon. Military police stopped the journalist and asked for his tape. They also told Gursky that he needed a security escort to film on Pentagon property.

When the journalist refused to hand over the tape, he was frisked, handcuffed, and arrested for disobeying a police officer. Once the military police had confiscated Gursky’s tape, they removed his handcuffs and allowed him to go free. Fox News officials were quoted as saying that Gursky had security clearance and credentials to film on Pentagon property.

Generally, journalists need permission to shoot footage on Pentagon property and have to be accompanied by an escort while doing so. On the afternoon of March 20, the Defense Department returned the tape to the Fox News bureau in Washington, D.C., but officials did not disclose whether the tape had been copied or used in any investigation, Fox News reported.

July 17

Edgar H. Powers Jr., The New Observer
David W. Carson, The New Observer

Carson and Powers, publisher and editor, respectively, of the Kansas-based, free-circulation monthly The New Observer, as well as Observer Publications Inc., were found guilty of seven counts of criminal defamation.

The case stemmed from a November 2000 New Observer article alleging that Carol Marinovich, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas, and her husband, Wyandotte County District Court judge Ernest Johnson, did not live in Wyandotte County but in an affluent county nearby. By law, the mayor and the judge are required to live in the county where they hold public office. The paper’s allegation proved to be false.

Though special prosecutor David Farris had not decided whether to seek jail terms, Carson and Powers faced fines and prison time of up to one year each. Defense attorney Mark Birmingham announced that he would ask the judge to set aside the verdict or he would file an appeal, The Associated Press reported.

In a November 12 hearing, Carson and Powers asked a judge to grant them a new trial or dismiss the case, claiming the guilty verdict against them was tainted by juror misconduct. However, three days later, the judge ruled that no such juror misconduct ad occurred. On November 27, the judge sentenced Carson and Powers to one year of unsupervised probation and fined them US$3,500 each. All but US$700 for each was suspended, and payment was to be delayed pending an appeal of the case. In mid-December, Carson and Powers filed an appeal before the Kansas Court of Appeals, which remained pending at year’s end.

September 27

Larry Towell, Magnum
Stephany Moore, United Press International
Nick Roberts, U.S. News and World Report
Michael Bruno,
Christina Pino-Marina,
Robin Bell, IndyMedia
Matthew Bradley, IndyMedia

Towell, a photographer with Magnum photo agency; Moore, a writer with United Press International; Roberts, a photographer with the weekly U.S. News and World Report; Bruno and Pino-Marina, writers at; and Bell and Bradley, free-lance writers with IndyMedia, were arrested in Washington, D.C., while covering demonstrations where hundreds had gathered to protest the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

According to the journalists, police officers in riot gear surrounded about 500 people, demonstrators as well as journalists, and arrested all of them. Although the journalists were accredited, they told CPJ that officers said the journalists were being arrested because they were not carrying press passes issued periodically by the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police. The journalists with IndyMedia said they were arrested even though both were wearing their Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police press passes.

Towell, a veteran photographer, was wearing various press credentials around his neck. But a senior police officer arrested the journalist after asking if he had a D.C. police press pass. Bruno and Pino-Marina wrote on that they “were grabbed forcefully by police officers in riot gear, handcuffed and led to Metrobus No. 8771 with 34 protesters and an indignant United Press International reporter.”

The police released all the journalists about four hours later without charge. D.C. Metropolitan Police spokesperson Joseph Gentile declined to comment on the arrests due to pending civil litigation involving the department and some of the arrested journalists.