War On Terrorism Threatens Free Press

By: Todd Shields

Although the war on terrorism has drawn widespread support from newspapers, it has also produced what one leading journalists’ group today called “threats to media coverage of important news stories.” It has also produced federal lawsuits in at least two states with several leading newspapers teaming up with civil-liberties groups.

In its white paper released Friday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va., outlined a series of what it believes are dubious measures undertaken by the Bush administration and state governments in recent months. Among its points:

* Federal plans for military tribunals leave unclear the degree of press access to “these proceedings of extreme public interest and importance.”

* Official measures in at least 17 states seek to close previously open records and meetings, with proposals to veil information about evacuation plans in event of a terrorist attack and details of infrastructure such as bridges, utility plants, and water lines.

* The USA Patriot Act that Congress passed in October eased wiretap rules. The Reporters Committee said the change increases the opportunity for authorities to eavesdrop upon e-mail and telephone exchanges between reporters and people whom officials consider to be agents of a foreign power. Secrecy rules mean “the reporter may never know that his or her communications have been under government surveillance.”

* Attorney General John Ashcroft has promised to support federal workers who deny Freedom-of-Information-Act requests if there is “any sound legal basis” to do so. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has asked Congress’ investigative arm to assess the effect of Ashcroft’s proposal, which open-government groups interpret as encouraging denial of requests.

* Since Sept. 11 federal authorities have detained hundreds “under an unprecedented amount of secrecy,” the report said, with more than 300 people reportedly still being held.

* The Bush administration restricted press access to military operations in Asia and the Middle East. Although some reporters were allowed on aircraft carriers in early stages of air operations over Afghanistan in October, the Pentagon has not acknowledged a 1992 agreement with press officials outlining ways to grant access. In late February, nearly five months after commencing hostilities, the Pentagon began allowing reporters to join U.S. ground troops in active combat. “They finally did the right thing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. The group in its report asked “whether we will really ever know what happened in Afghanistan.”

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