Attacks on the Press 2003: United States

The U.S. media went to war in 2003, with both embedded and independent reporters pouring into Iraq to cover the U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath. U.S. officials called the invasion the best-covered conflict in history, but it was also one of the most deadly for journalists. All told, 19 reporters died while working in Iraq, 13 of them killed by hostile acts.

CPJ took a wide variety of actions to safeguard the welfare of journalists covering the Iraq war. On March 6, for example, CPJ sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outlining a series of concerns, ranging from possible military strikes against Iraqi media to restrictions on embedded and independent reporters. Once the invasion began, CPJ worked to provide journalists covering the war with up-to-date safety information while documenting and denouncing press abuses and violations. For example, CPJ protested the April 8 strike by U.S. forces on Al-Jazeera offices in Baghdad, which killed one reporter, as well as the shelling of the Palestine Hotel later that morning, which left two more journalists dead. A detailed report on the Palestine Hotel incident released in May by CPJ found that the shelling, while not a deliberate attack on journalists, was avoidable. More detailed information about the attacks on Al-Jazeera and the Palestine Hotel and on press freedom conditions in Iraq is on page 186.

Foreign journalists in the United States faced additional scrutiny and pressure in 2003. On February 13, the U.S. government ordered the expulsion of Iraqi News Agency U.N. correspondent Mohammad Alawi because his presence was deemed harmful to the “interests of the United States.” The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials suspected Alawi of espionage. The Iraqi government responded by expelling a Fox News reporter.

On March 24, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) revoked the credentials of two Al-Jazeera reporters, citing a desire to reduce the number of reporters on the exchange floor. However, the revocation came just after the channel aired controversial footage from Iraqi state television of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs). On April 9, CPJ board member James C. Goodale wrote to NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso, calling the move a “huge mistake for the NYSE to appear to have gotten in the business of censorship.” The journalists’ credentials were restored on April 29.

On May 10 and 11, six French and two British journalists who arrived in Los Angeles to cover a video game convention were barred from entering the country, searched, questioned, detained, and deported. There were several other similar incidents involving foreign journalists throughout 2003. U.S. immigration officials say they are now scrupulously enforcing a law requiring that journalists obtain a visa to enter the country. While citizens from 27 “friendly” countries may enter the U.S. for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without a visa, journalists are required to secure a visa. Press groups in both Europe and the United States have called for changes in the regulations.

U.S. law enforcement officials cited terrorism concerns in justifying several investigations involving journalists. In March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acknowledged it had seized a package, which U.S. Customs had intercepted in September 2002, sent via Federal Express from The Associated Press (AP) bureau in Manila, Philippines, to AP’s bureau in Washington, D.C. The package contained an unclassified but sensitive internal FBI lab report. A customs agent in Indianapolis opened the package and turned it over to the FBI; the AP was not notified. The FBI finally returned the document in May to the AP and later conducted an internal investigation into the incident.

In July, a Secret Service agent visited the Los Angeles Times and asked to speak with cartoonist Michael Ramirez regarding a political cartoon the newspaper had published showing a gun pointed at President George W. Bush’s head. (The cartoon was intended to suggest that Bush is the victim of political assassination.) An attorney for the Times met with the agent but declined to allow him to see Ramirez.

In two cases, one directly involving a journalist, government officials leaked damaging information to the press in order to discredit critics. In July, after ABC News correspondent Jeffrey Kofman did a story on poor morale among U.S. military forces in Iraq, a White House aide planted a story with Internet columnist Matt Drudge that Kofman is gay and Canadian. That same month, Bush administration officials alerted several journalists that the wife of a U.S. diplomat was an undercover agent with the Central Intelligence Agency. Her husband had publicly cast doubt on the validity of President Bush’s assertion in the 2003 State of the Union Address that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger, forcing the White House to admit the statement was inaccurate. In October, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the leak and threatened to subpoena conservative columnist Robert Novak, who broke the story.

Concern about possible terrorist attacks also led to increased government secrecy, with broad implications for the press. In September, the Washington, D.C.based Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press released a revised and updated edition of its report on government secrecy, Homefront Confidential. The report describes how the U.S. government is limiting public access to terrorism and immigration proceedings and subverting the intent of the Freedom of Information Act by routinely denying requests for information. The report also documents how state legislatures are curtailing access to basic public information at the state level.

Several important court decisions in 2003 shielding judicial proceedings from press scrutiny or compelling journalists to testify were not directly related to national security concerns. In October, a federal judge ordered reporters from the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, AP, and CNN to provide information about former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was indicted on espionage charges by the U.S. government, which later dropped the charges. Lee is suing the government for damage to his reputation caused by the release of derogatory information to the media. Meanwhile, the Houston judge hearing the criminal cases against two former Enron executives accused of fraud refused to make available to the press transcripts from closed-door hearings because of possible “embarrassment” to the defendants and the court. “Embarrassment is not an exception to the First Amendment,” noted Houston Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen. The transcripts were released in October.

In June, a decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to relax media ownership rules to allow newspapers to own broadcasters in the same market and permit national broadcast networks to acquire additional stations sparked widespread controversy. Advocacy groups lobbied fiercely against the new regulations, arguing that further concentration of media ownership would allow a few giant corporations to control the information available to the public. The FCC countered that the current rules were antiquated, and that because of the explosion of news outlets on cable and the Internet, fears about corporations controlling information are unfounded. While a Senate resolution to override the FCC regulations was passed in September and a similar vote was pending in the House at year’s end, President Bush has said he will veto the resolution. Opponents of the FCC ruling have also challenged the decision in court.

While the expansion of government secrecy in the United States remains troubling, fears have not been justified that, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government would seek to limit the ability of journalists to protect their sources. The kind of charged government rhetoric that followed the attacks–when Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that criticism of the administration “only aids terrorists”–has also largely abated.

Nevertheless, 2003 was a very difficult year for the U.S media, not only because of the loss of so many colleagues in Iraq. (Four American journalists died.) Journalism reviews and editorial pages were full of warnings that overly credulous reporting from Iraq–as well as a major scandal involving New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was fired for both fabricating and plagiarizing stories–could damage public trust in the media. Critics noted that reliance on government sources led to misleading or erroneous reporting on the Jessica Lynch POW saga and the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

The perception that the U.S. government was able to control and manipulate reporting during the Iraq war was damaging not only to the U.S. media but also to journalists worldwide who faced pressure from repressive governments to produce “patriotic” reporting of their own. Indonesia, for example, introduced a highly restrictive embedding program for journalists covering the government military offensive against separatist rebels in Aceh Province. Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the military commander in Aceh, told journalists, “I want all news published to contain the spirit of nationalism. Put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first.”