Wednesday, July 26, 2006

FEMA OKs 1st Amendment Rights

Following up on my post of July 20 about FEMA preventing its trailer residents from speaking to reporters. From Editor & Publisher.

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.

"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.

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."

That's bureaucratese for "you caught us violating the Constitution without the power to get away with it like our bosses do, so we're forced to change our position".

This is a perfect example of what the Press is supposed to be doing.



But it is almost beside the point whether Katrina victims' access to the press is being restricted by official policy or unofficial practice. The Advocate piece provided two specific examples of residents of FEMA camps being told by FEMA security guards that they were "not allowed" to talk to media. (Another example, recorded on audio tape, was broadcast by Democracy Now!—4/24/06.) Stark’s letter simply ignores those incidents, providing neither an apology nor an explanation for these civil liberties violations. Thus FAIR repeats its call for an investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

I think that'd be kinda like the head fox investigating a break-in at a chicken coop. It should be investigated by a Justice Department not owned by Bush, or by a Democratic Congress.


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