9-11: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In the months following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, journalists around the world confronted an unprecedented press freedom crisis.

Ten journalists were killed covering the attacks and the subsequent “war on terrorism”–one died when the World Trade Center collapsed, eight were killed in Afghanistan, and then Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted and murdered in Pakistan. Meanwhile, across the globe, a growing number of world leaders cited actions taken by the United States since September 11 to justify crackdowns on the domestic press.

In fact, in the months following the attacks, world leaders began a flurry of attempts to muzzle the press. Fearing that they could be branded members of the “them” camp in President George W. Bush’s bipolar world, some governments prevented journalists from covering anti-U.S. demonstrations or criticizing U.S. policies. Others opportunistically adopted the rhetoric of the war on terrorism to justify repressive measures against the media. Still others took a cue from the tactics used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to keep the press away from the battlefield.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the international press freedom landscape has become even more complex. The Bush administration’s rhetoric warning about the perils of dissent has largely dissipated. But in many other parts of the world–from Central Asia to Southern Africa–authoritarian leaders seeking to disguise their repressive actions through association with the U.S. campaign continue to describe critical journalists as “terrorists.”

And with the Bush administration making the case both domestically and internationally for military action in Iraq, the issue of battlefield access for reporters may well resurface.

War footing

In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush made it clear that the United States was at war. The U.S. media were filled with remarks not of how to respond but when. Harsh, warlike statements from Washington were coupled with new restrictions on basic civil liberties and public warnings from administration officials about the dangers of dissent. Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that criticism of the administration “only aids terrorists” and “gives ammunition to America’s enemies,” while White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned that “all Americans … need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

In late September 2001, with the buildup of U.S. forces on the Afghan border well under way, the U.S. State Department pressured the government-funded Voice of America not to air an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. And on October 3, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Qatari authorities to rein in the Arabic language satellite station Al-Jazeera because of its alleged anti-American bias. Both actions sparked protest from press freedom groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Meanwhile, the Bush administration invoked national security concerns in tightly restricting press coverage of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, especially during the first phase of the war. Even when the Pentagon began allowing the press access to some of its ground troops at the end of November, military officials strictly controlled what the media were allowed to report. Journalists based at Camp Rhino, near Kandahar, complained that their colleagues in Washington, D.C., who relied largely on official briefings for information, tended to break significant stories about U.S. action in Afghanistan.

Journalists in Afghanistan who encountered U.S. forces while out 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. A Pentagon spokesperson said at the time that the U.S. forces, who Struck said threatened “if you go further, you would be shot,” were simply concerned for the reporter’s safety. In late August, U.S. Special Forces confiscated film from a New York Times photographer.

Last November, at CPJ’s annual benefit dinner, Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine journalist and one of four recipients of CPJ’s yearly International Press Freedom Award, sent a warning to the leaders of the United States, who had just embarked on the a war against terrorism. Leaders of other countries will be watching, he cautioned, and in their eagerness to please the United States, repressive regimes will adopt the rhetoric and use it in their own crusades to crush dissent and control the media.

The ripple effect

Verbitsky could have cited a number of examples. In the first weeks after September 11, journalists in Uganda were barred from photographing the president because of alleged security concerns. In the West African country of Benin, journalists were arrested for reporting that Osama bin Laden had contacts in the country. In China, the government restricted anti-American reporting. And in Indonesia and the West Bank, police confiscated film from photographers covering anti-U.S. demonstrations.

Meanwhile, in Central Asia, despotic regimes used their new strategic importance in the war on terrorism to escalate their own wars on dissidents, including the media. Leaders in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan pointed to a crackdown on radical Islamists as evidence of their support for the United States. The United States in return seems willing to look the other way while these governments maintain their tight–and often abusive–control over the press.

In other parts of the world, crackdowns on press freedom were related more closely to domestic political crises that bore no obvious relationship to the global upheaval resulting from September 11. However, these attacks on press freedom occurred while other world events were at center stage. As a result, there was little international outcry. For example, in September, Eritrean security officials suspended the tiny country’s entire private press. At least 10 journalists were arrested during the clampdown, when state radio announced a blanket ban on all private publications. The journalists were arrested for criticizing the dictatorial rule of President Isaias Afewerki. (As of late summer 2002, fourteen journalists were jailed in Eritrea, all of them at secret detention facilities.)

And in November, officials in Nepal declared a state of emergency in response to increasing violence by the country’s Maoist guerrilla movement, which has been fighting against the constitutional monarchy for the last six years. The Maoists were declared a terrorist organization, and a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance was introduced that allowed authorities to arrest anyone who maintains contact with or supports the rebels in any way. Since November, more than 100 Nepalese journalists have been detained, according to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, most of them for reporting on rebel activities or for working at publications seen as sympathetic to the Maoist cause.

More recent examples of attacks on the press have included situations in which government leaders have used Bush’s own statements in the war against terrorism to support their ulterior motives. The Chinese government has announced a crackdown on “terrorist, separatist, and illegal religious activities” by the mainly Muslim Uighur separatist movement, which is fighting to establish the independent state of East Turkistan in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. In an attempt to justify press restrictions, the Xinjiang party secretary stated that the East Turkistan separatists used the media as a primary method of “infiltration and sabotage.” In April, Israel justified the detention of journalists “on suspicion of having contact unrelated to journalistic work with a terrorist organization.” This summer, Liberians, taking a phrase from a speech by U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called a journalist, who has been held incommunicado for more than two months, an “unlawful combatant.”

But nowhere is the link between U.S. rhetoric and foreign repression more clearly drawn than in Zimbabwe, where media outlets have been bombed, foreign correspondents have been expelled, and local journalists have received anonymous death threats. Repression there has increased dramatically during the last two-and-half years, and officials have branded their victims as “terrorists” and justified their actions by quoting President Bush. “We agree with … President Bush,” said a spokesman for President Robert Mugabe, “that anyone who in any way finances, harbors, or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist.” Since Mugabe was re-elected to office in March 2002, fourteen journalists have been arrested.

A matter of national security

While the U.S. rhetoric on the dangers of dissent during wartime provided convenient cover for governments seeking to justify their repressive policies, the actions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which have kept the press at arm’s length, have inspired countries that have other reasons for curtailing the press.

Russian president Vladimir Putin seemed to be emboldened in his efforts to restrict press coverage of the conflict in the small breakaway republic of Chechnya. Moscow has dismissed the Muslim separatists as terrorists, claiming that the journalists who cover the impact of the war on civilians are simply contributing to separatist propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has imposed extraordinary restrictions on journalists covering military incursions in the West Bank and Gaza, using roadblocks, stun grenades, and occasionally live ammunition to keep the press at bay. On December 13, 2001, Israel bombed and bulldozed the Voice of Palestine’s radio facilities in the West Bank. Exactly one month earlier, on November 13, U.S. forces in Afghanistan blew up Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan, claiming the building was a “known al-Qaeda facility.”

Even in Colombia, long-standing military aid to support counternarcotic efforts has been presented as part of the U.S. anti-terror efforts in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. According to Colombian journalist Ignacio Gómez, the U.S. military has recently advised Colombian military officials on controlling the media. Colombian military officials tell journalists that neutrality in the war on guerrilla forces (who are now being called “terrorists” and “narco-terrorists”) is impossible, and that the press “has to be on our side.” Adds Gómez, “The use of this kind of polarizing language has closed an important space for dialogue in Colombia.”

Throughout U.S. history, civil liberties, including press freedom, have been threatened during times of war. The months after the September 11 attacks were no exception–the U.S. Congress passed legislation curtailing certain civil rights, and the Bush administration, aside from suggesting that criticism could be construed as unpatriotic, asserted a broad right to keep its activities secret from the public. While both these trends have dissipated somewhat during the last few months, they could re-emerge if the U.S. decides to go to war with Iraq.

But the most serious consequences of U.S. action have been felt not by American journalists, but by those struggling to report the news elsewhere. In Zimbabwe, Russia, and Colombia, among others, officials have eagerly appropriated U.S. actions to justify their own repression of free and independent reporting.

Illustration by Mick Stern / CPJ