FEMA Ends Media Blackout on Trailer Parks Set Up After Katrina

By: E&P Staff

The controversy over Federal Emergency Management Agency’s denial of media access to residents of the organization’s trailer parks has been momentarily quelled, according to The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La. The newspaper reported today that FEMA recently reversed its media policy, allowing reporters with proper credentials access to residents of the trailer parks, which were set up as disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina.

The Advocate had previously reported that a reporter and photographer had been ordered off the trailer park after seeking interviews with residents. The residents were willing to speak with The Advocate’s reporter and photographer, but a security guard said that meeting with the residents without the supervision of a FEMA representative was forbidden, and threatened to call the police.

After this event on July 16, The Advocate released two reports on the matter, as well as an editorial that called FEMA’s actions scandalous.

“Government authorities telling private citizens that they can’t speak with journalists–then threatening to have those journalists arrested–is typical for despotic regimes in foreign capitals,” The Advocate wrote on July 23.

The actions of FEMA outraged not only local government officials, but journalism organizations around the country as well. David E. Carlson, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote a letter condemning the denial of media access, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) sent out a memo with the contact information of the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, Richard L. Skinner, urging readers to write Skinner and demand for an investigation to begin.

On July 22, James Stark, the director of FEMA’s Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office, wrote a letter to The Advocate saying that the denial of media access was based upon the 1974 Privacy Act.

“Under the Privacy Act,” Stark wrote, “FEMA is required to balance one resident’s right to privacy and preference not to be approached by the media in their home with another’s willingness to openly express themselves to members of the press.”

Today, The Advocate has Stark recanting his position.

“We’re responding to your criticism,” Stark said to the editors and staff of The Advocate over a conference call. “You pointed out some very good points that we shouldn’t be trying to muzzle the press.”

Under the latest policy, reporters with proper media credentials will be able to speak to residents who wish to be interviewed, and may speak with residents in their trailers without the escort of a FEMA public information officer.

For a complete listing of FEMA’s revised media policy, click here.

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