Attacks on the Press 2010: United States

Top Developments
• U.S. military ignores call for probe into killings of 16 journalists in Iraq.
• Under Pearl Act, State Department will track press freedom worldwide.

Key Statistic
14: Journalists imprisoned by U.S. military forces for prolonged periods without charge between 2004 and 2010.

In two important advances, Congress passed legislation to track press freedom worldwide while military forces released an Iraqi journalist who had been held without charge for 17 months. But officials obstructed a photojournalist covering the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and reporters documenting military judicial proceedings at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba. A U.S. military video, disclosed by the website WikiLeaks, raised questions as to whether U.S. troops acted properly when they shot and killed an Iraqi journalist and his assistant in 2007.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
United States
Other nations

On February 10, U.S. military forces released Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer and cameraman who contributed to Reuters. After arresting Jassam in September 2008 on the vague assertion that he posed “a threat to the security of Iraq and coalition forces,” the U.S. military went on to hold him in defiance of an Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruling that concluded there was no evidence to charge the journalist with a crime. CPJ and others expressed hope that Jassam’s release would mark the end of an alarming U.S. military practice of holding journalists in open-ended detentions. Beginning in 2004, at least 14 journalists were held by U.S. forces for prolonged periods without charge or due process in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, CPJ research showed.

In May, President Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, named in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter who was slain in Pakistan in 2003. The measure requires the State Department to expand its reporting on press freedom issues and present its findings on an annual basis to Congress. The reports must document a range of abuses–including attacks, imprisonments, and indirect sources of pressure–and evaluate steps to curb the violations. The same month, Obama marked World Press Freedom Day by remembering journalist Chauncey Bailey, who was murdered in 2007 in Oakland, Calif. A coalition of local journalists and news outlets called the Chauncey Bailey Project was instrumental in exposing a flawed police investigation and sparking a more thorough probe. Prosecutors were preparing the case for trial in late year.

Also in May, Pentagon officials barred four journalists from covering U.S. military commission proceedings in Guantánamo Bay. The military accused the journalists of violating ground rules that barred the identification of its personnel without explicit approval. Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Steven Edwards of Canwest News Service, and Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald each named a U.S. Army interrogator, Joshua Claus, whom a detainee under examination had accused of torture. Claus had already identified himself to the press two years earlier in interviews with the Toronto Star and other Canadian media in which he denied torturing the detainee. His name had also appeared in a 2005 New York Times story about a separate U.S. military interrogation case.

A coalition of news organizations, including McClatchy Newspapers (owner of The Miami Herald), Dow Jones & Co., The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, and The Associated Press charged that the ban was unconstitutional. Two months after the reporters were barred, the Pentagon allowed them to return to the proceedings on the condition that they admit to violating military rules and agree to abide by Pentagon restrictions in subsequent stories. In September, the Pentagon issued new ground rules allowing reporters to publish already-public information even if it was declared “protected” by a military judge in Guantánamo Bay. The Pentagon said it would continue to impose other restrictions–including cropping photographs before publication to meet security requirements–although it established an expedited appeal process so disputes could be resolved within 24 hours.

At least one journalist was harassed while trying to cover the Gulf oil spill, one of the biggest U.S. stories of 2010. Photographer Lance Rosenfield was on assignment in July for the nonprofit media outlet ProPublica (headed by CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger) and the PBS television program “Frontline” near a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas. Rosenfield was confronted by a BP security officer, local police, and a man who identified himself as an agent of the Department of Homeland Security, according to ProPublica. Police released the photographer only after reviewing his images and recording his date of birth and Social Security number. The police officer then turned the information over to the BP security guard, ProPublica said.

In Alaska, campaign aides for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller handcuffed and detained a local website editor in October after he persisted in asking questions after a town hall-style campaign event. Alaska Dispatch founder and editor Tony Hopfinger was questioning Miller about reports that the candidate had been disciplined for using Fairbanks city resources for his own political campaigns while employed as a part-time borough attorney. When police arrived, they set the editor free. No charges were filed against anyone involved. Miller lost the election.

In April, WikiLeaks disclosed a U.S. military video showing a July 2007 attack by U.S. forces in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of several people, among them Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his assistant, Saeed Chmagh. CPJ sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, calling for a comprehensive, impartial, and public inquiry into the killings of Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh, along with 15 other Iraqi journalists and two media support workers killed by U.S. forces’ fire since 2003. Gates did not respond.

Pentagon officials were the ones protesting in July when WikiLeaks posted more than 75,000 classified U.S. military documents about Afghanistan. The website provided The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel early access to the documents, and each publication summarized their findings in separate stories published simultaneously in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In October, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 classified U.S. military documents about operations in Iraq. The Pentagon again protested, saying the disclosure threatened the lives of U.S. and allied troops and their informants.

The next month, WikiLeaks disclosed a trove of confidential U.S. State Department communiqués, prompting some American political figures to condemn founder Julian Assange as an “enemy combatant” and “information terrorist.” CPJ said the use of such inflammatory rhetoric gives cover to autocratic leaders around the world who routinely use similar language to refer to critical journalists. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he would pursue legal action against Assange. Details of a potential prosecution were not disclosed, although there was speculation the government could pursue charges under the 1917 Espionage Act. In a letter to Obama and Holder, CPJ urged the administration not to prosecute Assange.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the State Department denied an entry visa in June to Hollman Morris, an award-winning Colombian journalist who was to study at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá informed the journalist that he was ineligible under the Patriot Act, which bars visas to those accused of terrorist activities. Nieman Curator Robert H. Giles noted in the Los Angeles Times that while some previous fellows had been blocked by their own governments–such as apartheid-era South Africa–the denial of Morris’ visa was the first time a Nieman Fellow was barred by the United States.

Morris was known for his groundbreaking exposés of human rights abuses and links between illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and officials in the government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Uribe’s unfounded characterization of Morris as “an accomplice of terrorism” was widely seen as influencing the U.S. decision. A coalition of groups that included CPJ, Human Rights Watch, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, and the American Civil Liberties Union protested the decision. CPJ sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to reverse the ruling. A month later, U.S. officials granted Morris a visa.

In May, a federal court in New York ruled in favor of an oil company seeking to obtain unedited footage taken for the documentary “Crude.” The film documented allegations of health and environmental degradation caused by Texaco’s Ecuadoran oil extraction. The oil company, owned by Chevron in 2010, said it needed the footage for its defense in a lawsuit filed by Ecuadorans seeking millions of dollars in damages. The filmmaker Joseph Berlinger filed an appeal. A group of documentary filmmakers and film production associations, including the International Documentary Association, the Directors Guild of America, and the Tribeca Film Institute, filed a statement in his support. News organizations, including the AP and The New York Times, filed a supporting brief written by famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York narrowed the ruling but still ordered Berlinger to turn over a limited amount of raw footage involving lawyers, experts, and government officials. In September, the trial court ordered Berlinger to answer questions in a deposition with Chevron lawyers.

Molly Norris, a political cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly, went into hiding after she issued a tongue-in-cheek call for an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” according to the newspaper. The declaration was included in an April cartoon lampooning the cable network Comedy Central’s decision not to broadcast an episode of “South Park” that tested the Islamic prohibition on depicting images of the Prophet. Norris’ cartoon did not directly depict Muhammad, but it included images such as a smiling teapot saying, “I am the real likeness of Muhammad.” The cartoon was reposted by third parties on Facebook. A Pakistani court ordered service providers to temporarily block access to Facebook over the cartoon. A Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, declared in an English-language magazine, Inspire, excerpts of which were later posted online by the website “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” that Norris “does not deserve life, does not deserve to breathe the air,” according to the New York Daily News. Norris went into hiding in September on the advice of FBI experts, the Seattle Weekly reported.