Censoring the New War

After the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., defending press freedom has become more important than ever before.

The first images came in real time on September 11, and they were followed by a flood of heartbreaking video, riveting photographs, poignant voices, and penetrating prose.

For days, Americans had 24-hour access to the tragedy, the response, the aftermath, the investigations, the groping for understanding. The world’s freest press played a crucial role in helping America cope. Grim and frightening as the events were, they would have been more so without the free flow of information.

But September’s terrorist attacks in America sparked a conflict, and in times of conflict, governments display a nearly universal instinct: to curb their media.

It’s a phenomenon well documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in countries scattered around the globe. When conflicts erupt, governments restrict information in the name of national security.

In April of this year, for example, Liberian officials ordered journalists covering fighting in the north of the country to clear their stories with the Ministry of Information before publication or broadcast.

Meanwhile, the Russian government often challenges the patriotism of editorial writers who question its policies in Chechnya. And all too frequently, governments ban interviews with opposition figures on the grounds that the enemy should not be allowed a public voice. Angolan journalists, for example, can expect to end up in police detention if they broadcast the voice of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

The view from here
These questions of war and censorship were far from our minds on September 11. Indeed, in the first hours and days after the attacks, it was difficult for us at CPJ to see just how crucial our work was about to become.

But as e-mails and calls flooded in from journalists and organizations around the world wanting to know if CPJ had been hurt by this tragedy, we were struck by how much our advocacy means to so many. And as the aftermath of the attacks evolved into a U.S.-led “war on terrorism,” governments from China to Benin to the Palestinian National Authority acted to restrict the local press.

Silencing the enemy
Soon, even the U.S. government showed the first signs that it was not immune to this restrictive instinct. First, the State Department tried to censor a Voice of America (VOA) interview with the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the new enemy in the war. Secretary of State Colin Powell then urged the emir of Qatar to rein in the anti-American coverage of the Arabic-language satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.

Next, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held a highly publicized conference call with U.S. TV executives, in which she urged caution in broadcasting pretaped messages from Osama bin Laden. Without providing evidence, Rice argued that bin Laden might be using the videos to send secret messages to his terrorist cells.

At best, these actions resulted from a government fumbling to create a cohesive public relations strategy. At worst, they were reminiscent of the information control that we associate with authoritarian regimes.

Yet, the U.S. government’s attempts to stifle the media differ, thus far, from similar actions in other countries at war in one very crucial respect: There were no reprisals attached.

Thus, when the Voice of America journalists defied the State Department by running parts of the Taliban interview, they were no punished.

That’s the critical difference for U.S. journalists.

Do as we say…
Nonetheless, the Bush administration’s pronouncements reach far beyond U.S. media outlets. Indeed, the effect of U.S. statements may be greater outside the United States than inside.

“Press Freedom Under Attack in the U.S.A.” read an October headline in Russia’s respected daily The Moscow Times.

This was not a news story, but an analysis by a worried columnist who saw the attempt to censor the VOA as an unfortunate precedent that Russian president Vladimir Putin would likely exploit to justify repression at home.

“I don’t like what is going on in America between the press and the government,” wrote Alexei Pankin, “because here in Russia the authorities are always most eager to borrow from the worst elements of western experience.”

War does not justify stifling free expression and the free press. And the Bush administration must understand that its intolerant remarks give enemies of the press around the world an excuse for further repression.

British broadcasters faced similar pressures in October from government officials who wanted to keep bin Laden off the air. Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of the television news channel ITN, observed in Sunday Business that the tone of the government’s relationship with the media can be a litmus test of progress in the war on terrorism. “If we later find ourselves in the firing line of the government,” he wrote, “it would be a fair bet that other things are not going to plan either.”

A free press is essential to America’s vibrant democracy. This is even truer in times of conflict, when the more the public knows, the better it can cope.

So back at 330 Seventh Avenue on the 12th floor, CPJ continues its mission of uncovering and challenging press freedom abuses, from the United States and Uruguay to Uganda and Uzbekistan. We have little choice, because the stakes are higher than ever.

Ann Cooper is the executive director of CPJ.