Observers cast doubt on the objectivity of the American press
Ten years after the Gulf War, a conflict the reality of which was largely hidden from the media, the US administration has launched a new series of military operations in reaction to the waves of terrorist attacks that stroked the East coast of the United States leaving nearly 6,000 dead. The daily New York Times noted, éThis surge of national pride sweeping the country after the terrorist attacks on 11 September sparks the beginnings of new, more difficult debate over balance among national security, free speech and patriotism.é The influential American newspaper said in an article on 28 September 2001 that the debate éis being played out on stages large and smallé, that press comments have on several occasions provoked the fury of the authorities, along with that of the American public, and have led to sanctions including pulling of programmes, withdrawal of advertising in the media and disavowal, even outright sacking of the journalists by their employers. This comes on top of a long list of constraints and more subtle pressure that American and foreign media, including the Internet, have been subjected to since 11 September.
Many journalists and foreign observers have already cast doubt on the objectivity and independence of the American press, particularly the TV channels, in this period of éwar efforté. In the same way, several voices have been raised within the United States warning the public about a decline in freedom of expression and opinion, freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, in exchange for tightening security. éWe are facing an enemy which is exploiting what it is about our society that makes it strong and effective: freedom, openness and freedom of movement. We have to be sure that we remain an open society, in which individual freedoms are respected,é said Strobe Talbott, former number two at the US State Department in the Clinton Administration. But these voices, drowned out in the climate of media coverage devoted to covering the aftermath of the attacks, the preparations and continuing US counter-attacks, remain in a minority. Even those who are critical appear weakened by the emotion produced by this dramatic terrorist act, the death of thousands of innocent people and the suffering of their bereaved families.
In the face of calls to national unity, US organisations traditionally devoted to defending individual freedoms, have been muted. They consider that it is still too soon, even inappropriate, to be raising the alarm over events considered largely ésecondaryé. éThe shock of 11 September seems to have stifled the most militant of people, giving way to a de facto tolerance towards tougher than usual stances on the part of the military and the judiciary,é said journalist Sylvie Kauffman, former correspondent of the French daily Le Monde in New York, on 17 September 2001. In fact today, while countries throw themselves into a fresh military operation, the vigilance of organisations defending human rights and individual freedoms are all the more needed.
A number of regimes find the temptation too great to exploit the genuine emotion produced by these attacks on the United States on 11 September to restrict freedom of the press and more generally to silence domestic opposition under the cover of the struggle against terrorism. In countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Territories under Palestinian Authority or Liberia, Reporters Sans Frontiéres (RSF) has recorded several incidents of press freedom violations directly linked to the events in America. While avoiding all linkage with these regimes, RSF also makes public here a serious of episodes affecting press freedom in the United States between 11 September and 7 October 20001, the date of the American military counter-attack. Most of them have been reported and commented on by the American press or by specialist Internet sites. Are these incidents of censorship or self-censorship? Are we witnessing a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities or a choice made by the main media themselves? What do American and foreign journalists working in New York think? What about organisations that defend press freedom? To try to answer these questions, two representatives of RSF went to the United States and meet representatives of the media, human rights organisations and US press specialists.
The first suspect: Internet
The unprecedented scale of the attacks on New York and Washington, and the presumed use by the terrorists of advanced computer technology, prompted fears among internet users of a tightening of web surveillance, as called for by the security services. A number of sources report that a few hours after the attacks on 12 September, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents turned up at the headquarters of the main internet providers (Hotmail, AOL, Earthlink, etc) to obtain information on possible email exchanges between the terrorists. Technicians working for these companies have said off the record to the American online magazine Wired that FBI agents wanted to install the electronic bugging system éCarnivoreé (recently renamed DCS 1000) on the main computer of internet access providers based in the United States. éFrom Tuesday evening FBI agents showed up at our workplace wanting to set up their machines. They promised to pick up the tab for all the costs of installation and useé. Another one working for Hotmail said that the FBI had asked for, and obtained, from company executives all information on accounts, whose names included the word Allah. All the major Internet access providers appear to have followed Hotmailés example and fully collaborated with the American secret services.
Once installed at an Internet access provider Carnivore can record and save all information exchanged between users. Under strong critical pressure from defenders of individual freedoms in the United States, the system had never been used until now except with the advance agreement of a judge. The éCombating terrorism Acté voted through after a half-hour debate in the Senate on 13 September, barely two days after the attacks, exempts the security services from judicial approval for the use of Carnivore. To become law this act has still to be approved by a joint commission of members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
In the same vein, a number of US leaders have started attacking encryption. This procedure allows internet-users to enjoy confidentiality when exchanging information on the Internet with the use of encryption software. the best known being PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), which can be freely downloaded from a number of sites. Already last March the head of the FBI Louis Freeh said he was convinced that terrorist networks were using encryption. On 13 September the Republican senator Judd Gregg called in a speech to Congress for a worldwide ban on encryption software unless public authorities had been given the means to decode the messages. éOne could fear that the authorities could take advantage of the emotion of the moment to achieve their objective: banning encryptioné one American proponent of PGP told RSF. Other privacy protection militants such as John Gilmore of the American organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called for creation of more sites which would offer encryption software on open sale.
After the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 the FBI found plans for hijacking 11 planes on the portable computer of the person who carried out the attack. The FBI took ten months to decode the files, the majority of which had been encrypted with PGP software. Defenders of encryption say to this that intelligence has already shown its weakness in this area in as much as the terrorists appear to have already used methods that avoid electronic surveillance. The creator of PGP, David Zimmerman, who was nearly jailed in the United States during the 1980 for distributing his programme, has once again defended his position in a recent interview in the magazine Futur(e)s. éWhether ités congress, or in the courts or in the columns of newspapers, the country has already debated this question over the last decade. And together we have decided that society has more to gain than to lose from effective encryption. It should not be forgotten that encryption has saved lives in the entire world. The system is used by human rights organisations worldwide and especially under dictatorshipsé. (Quoted by the on-line magazine Transfert, 17 September 2001).
Television: From spontaneity to patriotic rigour
Filmed virtually live, the attack against the World Trade Center was at the same time tragic and spectacular, as if meant for television. éOne should not forget that the terrorist target, Manhattan, is not only the financial heart but also the media capital of the countryé, an American journalist pointed out. Never has such an event been filmed and photographed live both by cameras and surveillance, by amateurs and professionals. In the first days access to the sites of the attacks was not controlled. Numerous photographers and cameramen took advantage of this by getting as close as possible to the points of impact. The United States being cut off from the rest of the world with the grounding of all flights, it was only American journalists and foreign correspondents posted to New York who covered the story. Not having necessarily experienced war or natural disasters, they admitted to having had éthe shock of their livesé when they heard about the terrorist attacks and went to the World Trade Centre. Either originally from New York or having lived their for many years, they said with a good deal of emotion, that they had covered éthe most important story of their careersé. They did not hide their sympathy for Americans and in particular New Yorkers in this difficult period. éI reacted first as an adopted New Yorker rather than as a journalisté said Stéphanie Tremblay French programme co-ordinator for Radio Canada. éThe terrorists had above all attacked my city and targeted my way of life.é éI never thought I would cover such an event in my whole life time.é said Don Emmert, head of photo for Agence France-Presse. éI am Canadian,é said Marc Greenought, radio producer for English programmes on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), ébut during these past days I have never felt so deeply American.é
Everyone interviewed by RSF in New York said so: The American television networks were the first to cover the story and they were an excellent source of information in the first days. éWe edited the first reports on the attack on the World Trade Center with our eyes fixed on the television screen,é said Michel Moutot, Agence France-Presse bureau chief in New York. éThe US television networks have matchless resources and they used them right away,é he continued. Eric Leser, correspondent for the French daily Le Monde agreed. He told RSF how invaluable the live coverage on American television was to his work. The organisation Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), generally very critical of the major media in America, found that the coverage in the first days was acceptable overall. éWe saw a new type of spontaneous and sincere journalismé said one of its organisers Steve Randell.
But just a week later, the tone and content on the American television networks changed. éI think the turning point was George W. Bushés speech to Congress on the 20 September 2001, said Eric Leser. éSince then the media has taken on a strongly patriotic tone and news has lost out to propaganda.é French journalists add that since then they have followed the television networks much less and used the internet, where there are a number of sites providing more critical news and different angles. Many foreign correspondents who spoke to RSF in New York said the same thing.
The RSF representatives noted the change of tone and feeling on the American networks that covered President Bushés 20 September speech, in which he called for a éwar against terrorism.é The fate of the victims was relegated to second position and the networks devoted their airtime to hailing the countryés énew heroesé: firefighters, police and military staff, politicians. And above all reflecting an image of a united and defiant nation, ready to wage war on those who have attacked it. éAmericaés new waré and éAt war with terroré (CNN) or éAmerica fights back or counter-attacks? (CBS) were the watchwords, henceforth always accompanied by the ubiquitous stars and stripes. éBroadcasts became all beating the drum and flags flying in the wind. It was no longer news,é said another foreign correspondent Richard Hetu, a journalist with the Canadian daily La Presse. A French journalist, a Balkans specialist, who covered the NATO intervention in Serbia, agreed from New York that American television had égone to waré: é Instead of news broadcasts, Americans are watching advertising spots to the glory of their country,é he said. In one example the 62 regional channels of the Sinclair Broadcast group have been carrying an advertisement on their web site: éOur team supports the action of President Bush and the leaders of our nation in putting an end to terrorism.é continues the message, urging viewers who agree to send their views to the site.
Reflecting on the patriotic outbursts, Stéphanie Tremblay of Radio Canada said she was énot at all surprised by this aspect of coverage on the US networks. éI knew, however, that if I want to hear a more critical report that gave more space to the news itself, I would have to watch BBC or event TV 5,é she said. Fellow journalist Chantal Lavigne, also acknowledged the American mediaés desire to take part in the éwar efforté said, éMost star television presenters have said that they were Americans before being journalists.é
Journalists and media executives questioned by RSF, either strongly denied having produced propaganda or on the other hand, acknowledged and justified their decision. éThe footage of the attack against the World Trade Center has no equivalent in the history of conflict,é said Paul Khlebnikov, journalist with the influential economic magazine Forbes. éIn the war of pictures the terrorists have made a decisive point. That is why the war that the United States is going to wage should not be just military and economic but also psychological, therefore media-driven. Killing Bin Laden will not be enough he will have to be cut down symbolically. Mr Khlebnikov said he was not worried by the bellicose and propagandist tone adopted by some of the US media. He attributes it to a écivic revivalé shared by all Americans. éThe first days there could have been a collapse in morale of Americans. Then as in times of war, there was a civic revival which was picked up in the press. And if the media has sometimes lacked objectivity it was not under official pressure. Objectivity in journalism does not man an absence of values. The media, overall, did excellent work. Television in particular was a triumph,é he said.
Paul Khlebnikov is not the only one in the American press to take this position. Sandy Genelius, spokeswoman for the American TV network CBS News is satisfied, she says in an interview with RSF, with the comments she has read in the press about the work of the channel. éWe havenét sunk into propaganda like someé, she says taking a swipe in passing at CBSés main competitor Cable News Network International (CNN). The chairman of CNN Chris Cramer has been self-congratulatory about the work of his network from 18 September: éCNN has never failed to live up to the occasion (-) to supply balanced news. The 4,000 men and women of CNN have not escaped the shock and the horror of what has happened. However the coverage of the news that we gave the public and other media is testament to professionalism and integrity.é
Missing images: censorship or équestion of tasteé
Barely a week after the attacks, some European media chiefs, particularly French, have questioned the impartiality of the American TV networks, suspected of not showing éall the imagesé, mainly those of the victims of the attacks. Then there have been criticisms of American authorities, accused of wanted to prevent some shots from the scene being taken and put out by the media. Robert Namias, head of information for the main private French television channel TF1 has several times condemned éfilteringé which he considers a form of écensorshipé. éI strongly regret the censorship imposed on us by the United States, the journalist told the French daily Le Figaro on 26 September 2001. éThe images that the French media paid for were filtered, treated and purified by the American authorities. How do you think we can do our job when we are denied access to information and surrounded by security forces? I did not want to show horrifying images but, to do the job properly, there should be a minimum knowledge.é His opinion is shared, in varying degrees, by other French television bosses but not unanimously. éThe horror of the two planes slamming into the towers. Wasnét that enough? asks Hervé Brusini, head of national news on the public French channel France 3. His colleague on France 2 Oliver Mazerolle, considers that he would not have shown gory images but said the American channels balked at showing this type of image éfor patriotic reasonsé. The French journalists all join however in condemning increasing difficulty in getting access to the World Trade Center site and the unwillingness of the authorities to allow journalists to move about freely within the security perimeter.
During their investigation in New York and Paris, the RSF representatives tried to find out more about the lack of images of the victims and the conditions of access to the World Trade Center site. Jim Rutenberg and Felicity Barringer, media specialists for the New York Times visited various television studios from 11 September onwards and questioned those in charge about their editorial choices. éTerrible pictures started arriving,é they said. éThere was blood, there were dismembered bodies.é Despite the desire of some journalists to show these images, the head of MSNBC Erik Sorenson took the decision not to show them. éI think there are all sorts of ways to show the horror without descending into the gory,é he said Some networks, like NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News did however broadcast footage of desperate people jumping from the blazing building. Only to regret it afterwards. éIt was a bad decision, the pictures were really too disturbingé, confessed Bill Wheatley, vice-president of NBC News. Those who decided not to show the film explained: é The question is are we just creating useless painé. Those, who like CBS, showed them, justify themselves too: éThatés terrorism. From one point of view you want to protect the viewer but in another way you want to show just what the terrorists have really done.é
Michel Moutot of Agence France-Presse also remembers these deeply disturbing photos. éBy their clothes one could easily recognise people who jumped from the windowsé. However he considered them to be éacceptableé. In fact, several photos of this scene, taken by photographers from the major international agencies appeared during the course of the week in the American and European press. Editors who published the, like Glenn Guzzo of the daily Denver Post, spoke of the virulent objections from readers. éHavenét you any feelings, any respect for the families who have lost their loved-ones?é one reader asked indignantly.
At this stage is strongly appears that a number of distressing photos were taken and used by the American media. It was they who decided, according to their own conscience, whether to use them or not. éIt doesnét look like the authorities were trying to control these pictures, given that that they didnét even know how to protect the president,é said one observer. éThe refusal to show the horrifying pictures was an editorial decision by my colleaguesm,éadds Paul Khlebnikov of Forbes. éAs citizens we had to ask ourselves the question: should one show bits of bodies in a period of mourning and national remembrance?é It was indeed an éeditorial choiceé said Sandy Genelius of CBS News to RSF. éWe had sensitive film, we had gory images, but each time we asked ourselves: What more are we contributing to history by showing them? So we decided not to show the pictures just for the pleasure of demonstrating that we had themé.
This sudden reticence of the part of the American media has interested a number of foreign observers. In an analytical piece headed éThe faceless dead of the World Trade Center,é the journalist Michel Guerin, specialist in images at the French daily Le Monde, stated the paradox: é5,500 people died or disappeared on the black day of 11 September…but practically no image of the bodies has been shown on the television or published in the pressé (21 September 2001). éA decency of variable shape, says Dominique Wolton, head of research at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) quoted by the French daily Liberation (19 September 2001). éThis should be a big lesson in decency to western media who donét hesitate to show massacres when they happen in Rwanda…é he added. Others like the photo historian Marc Ferro do not find it surprising. éDuring wars you never show your own dead, only those of your adversaries. The Americans want to limit the images of the trauma they have suffered, of defeat, the affront and the mortification.é
Sandy Genelius, spokeswoman for CBS News, to whom RSF put these questions, once again staunchly defended herself against applying double standards. éItés not true that we used different standards. We applied the same rules when we filmed in Rwanda as at the World Trade Center.é
An RSF representative also discussed this question with Tom Golstein, emeritus professor at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism in south Manhattan. He considered that it was simply a équestion of tasteé.
This opinion seems to be shared by a significant majority of American and even foreign journalists. Like Canadian journalist Marc Greenought of CBC, they did not hide their astonishment, even irritation at the criticism from the European media on the absence of more distressing and gory images of the World Trade Center victims and the restricted access to the site. éI do not understand,é he told RSF. éAs a journalist I had all the access I needed, the suffering, the emotion. No need to go searching for blood under the ruins for that.é
Arrests and calls to order
In the first days after the attacks of 11 September, the American media certainly adopted a common position which was not to éadd horror on horroré and to take part in the resurgence of patriotic national feeling. In doing this, those in charge followed the wishes of a large majority of the public which reacted strongly to the first images shown after the attacks. Added to this were very strict rules of access to the site of the disaster, injunctions by the various authorities along with sanctions against recalcitrant photographers.
The perimeter of the World Trade Center was quickly secured and surrounded by US security forces after the confusion of the first few days. éThe New York police were generally co-operative with the press and allowed comings and goings on the site. The arrival on the scene of the National Guard put an end to this situation,é remembered M. Moutot of AFP. Barriers appeared all around the site, the security perimeter was extended by several streets to the south and north of Manhattan. A complex system of accreditation was then established Involving both police and the military. According to the daily Los Angeles Times, from 19 September onwards the police started seizing the films of photographers and tourists close to the site. Many photographers had their access passes withdrawn for failing to respect the orders of the authorities. The American press freedom organisation The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) said that at least four journalists were arrested and accused of breaking the conditions of access to the World Trade Center site. Among them was Ian Austin, photographer for the Agency Aurora Quanta Productions, who was detained for three days before being released without any charge. All journalists working for the daily Dallas Daily News had their accreditation withdrawn because of the arrest and ébad conducté of one of their photographers.
In an interview with RSF, Don Emmert, head of photo at AFP in New York discussed the consequences of the restrictions and the calls to order on the work of his agency. éIn photo terms, whole segments of this drama have not been covered. The reason is simple : they wouldnét let us work. We could not satisfy the demands of our clients from abroad. For instance, we could not go to the hospitals and we can no longer freely take pictures of the World Trade Center after the disaster.é
éThe office of the mayor asked us not to show firefighters recovering the bodies of their colleagues.é continued Don Emmert, who also spoke out against the current working conditions on the site. éItés like a police state, he said. They let us shoot in organized pools only what the authorities want us to shoot. The ones who move freely around are the Marine photographers and the photographers from the Federal Emergency Agency. They supply agencies with very pretty photographs Even if the American press continues to carry photos of the ruins of the World Trade Centre, all media, including the tabloids, have to accept pools, of shots taken from a distance and showing only the wide angle of the site.
For some journalists working in New York the reply to the debate on the absence of images of the victims of the World Trade Center is very simple. éI quite honestly doubt that that there is much left to show,é suggests the French daily Le Mondeés correspondent. His view is shared by Richard Hetu of the Canadian daily La Presse, who believes that the bodies literally édisintegratedé. The World Trade Center has become an enormous crematorium,é he continued. éAs I wrote in one article, the dust from the debris of the World Trade Center that we are breathing still probably includes the ashes of the victims.é
America should not speak with the same voice as its enemies
Several other incidents, comparable to press freedom violations, characterised the life of the media after the 11 September. They were caused by interventions by the authorities critical of one media or another, or by the owners of the media themselves who saw it as a good moment to sanction a particular journalist for ésubversiveé comments, and sometimes by both at once, without being able to establish with that media what the real reason for the sanction was. So when the television network ABC decided on 19 September to no longer broadcast images of the two planes slamming into the World Trade Center towers, it was officially so as not to ébanalise the dramatic eventé. Many observers suspect however that it was the result of pressure from the authorities and in particular because of a desire expressed by the owner of Disney.
The most flagrant examples of corporate censorship é when media bosses sanction a journalist for his or her opinions é came from the dailies The Texas City Sun and the Daily Courier in the state of Oregon. On 23 September Les Daughty Jr, owner of the Texas City Sun for 17 years writes an apology to his readers for an article by one of his editors-in-chief Ron Gutting, who said in an article critical of President Bush on the day after the attacks, that he was éflying around the country like a scared child seeking refuge in his motherés bed after having a nightmareé. In an article on the front page of the newspaper Daughty apologised to all the leaders of the country and particularly to President George Bush for having published such an article which could only provoke éanger and disgusté. Ron Gutting was sacked from the newspaper, the main daily in the state of Texas, home of the Bush family.
His colleague Dan Guthrie of the Daily Courier at Grantés Pass met the same fate and for similar reasons. He wrote on the 15 September on a humorous page in the newspaper that George Bush had éskedaddledé in the face of the attacks, accusing him of being éan embarrassmenté for éhiding in a Nebraska holeé on the day of the terrorist attacks. The newspaperés editor-in-chief Dennis Mack wrote for his readers that to say that the head of state was hiding at a time when America was trying to unite after the bloody attacks was neither responsible nor appropriate. As a result Dan Guthrie lost his job but for épersonal reasonsé, according to his employer.`
In neither case was there any apparent pressure on the part of the authorities. It was the fierce reactions of the newspapersé readers that were decisive in the decision to sack the journalists. In another case, that was widely reported in the US press star television presenter Bill Maher drew a strong reaction from the White House. On his talk show éPolitically Incorrecté on ABC, Bill Maher said on 17 September, éWe have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. Thatés cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, Ités not cowardlyé. These comments drew the rage of many viewers and led to the immediate withdrawal of the programmeés two main sponsors Federal Express and Sears. A number of television stations linked to the ABC network, mainly in New York and Washington, pulled the Bill Maher programme, especially after White House spokesman Ari Fleisher called his remarks éunpatrioticé. He added, éIt was a terrible thing to say and ités unfortunate.é He went on, éThe reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they doé. Journalists who heard his statement noted later that éwatch what they sayé did not appear in the text of this official record of the conference.
Another decision of the US administration that drew much attention was the attempt by the authorities to block the broadcasting at the end of September of an interview with the spiritual leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar on the Congress-financed Voice of America. The station that is broadcast to 50 countries worldwide, to explain America to the world, normally has reasonable editorial independence. Claude Porsella, head of the VOA French service told RSF about the content of the programme. éOne of my colleagues in the Pashto language service had the scoop of his life: an interview with Mullah Omar. VOA never intended to broadcast the entire interview, extracts of which were included in some general reporting including comments from the US Administration, analysis by an Islamic expert and the position of the Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar said he was convinced that Osama Bin Laden could not be behind the attacks.é The State Department, which has a seat on the VOA board, called on the other board members to ban the interview, scheduled for 28 September. éVOA is not the voice of Mullah Omar and is not the voice of the Talibané, said one American official. He said it would be éinappropriateé to spend the backers money to broadcast comments of the head of the movement who was protecting the terrorists behind the 11 September attacks.
éThis decision caused huge dismay among VOA journalists,é said Claude Porsella. The head of news protested and a petition was signed by 150 journalists. Faced with this reaction and strong interest in the press, VOA reversed its decision and decided to go ahead with the broadcast on 25 September. So far there have been no sanctions on the part of the US Administration. éWe won a battle,é said Claude Porsella. éBut I doubt the story will end there. Heads will probably roll,é he feared.
On this occasion the VOA journalists were able to win the solidarity of their colleagues in the major US media, particularly the written press. In the same way the influential daily The Washington Post opened its columns to journalist from VOA before taking a position in an editorial on 26 September. This read: éThe episode revealed an impulse to squelch facts that is never far beneath the surface in time of war or quasi-war, an impulse that is hardly less noxious when it retreats promptly under challenge. éBut the time for editors to resist the censoring and self-censoring instinct is before it is acted upon, not after. We hear frequently that the only way to beat the terrorists is to hold on to this nationés freedoms. Those include honoring Americans’ right to hear commentary that bothers some and to glimpse the thoughts of enemies.é
At the beginning of October, the American authorities once more expressed their annoyance towards the media which allow a voice to éenemies of Americaé. This time it was the Arabic Television station Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar that drew the ire of Bush Administration by broadcasts footage and interviews with Taliban leaders or with Osama Bin Laden. The station is famous for its 1998 interview with the man they call éthe head of El Qaedaé. This interview was broadcast uncut, on several occasions, after 11 September. On é September the American ambassador in Qatar officially intervened with the authorities in the country to protest against this éincendiary rhetoricé by the station, which is accused of supplying ébiasedé coverage of the events of 11 September as well as éencouraging anti-American feelingsé in the Middle East. On 3 October following an interview with the US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa el-Thani, Emir of Qatar, and main shareholder in the station, said that US officials had asked him to use his authority to influence the coverage. The Emir said he would not interfere with the editorial policy of Al-Jazeera. The US Administration again complained about the broadcast, the day after the first US air strikes, the words of Osama Bin Laden warning the United States that it would élive in fearé. A State Department official told Reuters: éYes to freedom but we think it’s beyond the pale to provide an open platform for these sort of violent ideas. We’re concerned everywhere that Osama bin Laden not to be able to use the media to spread his ideasé. At the same time President Bush would be willing to speak on the station. Al-Jazeera, which has had a permanent studio in Kabul since 1998, is one of the rare media still present in the Afghan capital and at Kandahar. Known for the quality of its programmes, his professionalism and independence, the “CNN of the Arab worldé is regularly criticized by Arab countries which fear the platform it gives to opposition of all kinds.
Conclusion: Is the First Amendment in danger?
US lawyer and expert on the American Constitution Floyd Abrams says that America often debates issues like patriotism and free speech n times of crisis. He considers that the First Amendment is put to the test when the country is too. When the country felt threatened, its existence challenged, the First Amendment and its values were sometimes subordinated to other priorities.
This opinion is apparently shared by several US organisations for defence of press freedom, who believe it is too soon to become alarmed by the events that have been outlined in this report. Lucy Daglish, head of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said she was not unduly concerned. She felt that the media, like the rest of society had become hypersensitive, after the attacks. Her organisation had noted the consequences of the 11 September attacks, but without taking up a position. In an interview with head of the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) Ann Cooper and deputy head Joel Simon, the main US-based worldwide press freedom organisation, said they consider that much more serious violations of press freedom were going on in other parts of the world. Ann Cooper said she thought the US State Departmentés criticism of VOA demonstrated an almost instinctive reflex by governments in times of conflict, not to broadcast the words of their adversaries. In some countries this had the force of law, she said. In Russia media which published interviews with Chechen faced legal action. In Angola, police had detained journalists who quoted a rebel commander. éThe crucial difference is that VOA broadcast the interview, despite the opposition of the State Department and has so far not suffered any sanction.é But Ann Coooper stressed that it was the tolerance of a free press that kept democracy alive. She did not feel that the press was in danger in the United States. éAmerican journalists donét need us to defend them. They have their media and the entire profession to back them in case of danger.é
Tim Golstein of Columbia School of Journalism also shares this view and is confident that the American media can defend its own interests. épatriotism, independence, freedom of speech: we debate these questions practically every day whether in newspapers or in university lecture halls. But it is far too soon to draw conclusions from this debate.é Media who had so far done an excellent job in covering the attacks should now try to do the same for the rest: continue to do the same good job, but in time of conflict.
Following this investigation in Paris and New York, Reporters Sans Frontiéres nevertheless considers that a number of points of concern remain:
Several attempts by the US authorities aimed at regulating the work of the media have been reported: Arrests of photographers near the World Trade Center, the desire of the security forces to filter images taken at the site, an attempt to ban an interview with Mullah Omar on VOA and the pressure on the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera to stop broadcasting footage of Osama Bin Laden. All these interventions, in whatever context, are unacceptable.
Moves against confidentiality on the internet, along with a certain number of measures within the éanti-terroristé legislation that is currently being examined, constitute a real threat to individual and collective freedoms.
The symbiosis which appears to operate between the tone of the main audio-visual industry and official US policy could eventually militate against the watchdog role of the media in a democracy.
The cases outlined of corporate censorship, such as the sackings of the two journalists for comments considered outrageous, could lead to self-censorship and an absence of criticism in the press.
The setting up of époolsé of photographers at the World Trade Center site and the complexities of the accreditation system do not bode well for a free and independent coverage of the actions taken by the United States in reprisal for the terrorist attacks of 11 September.
At this difficult time for the United States, in these times of emotion, even of legitimate anger, RSF has nevertheless been able to verify the strength of the principles of the First Amendment in this country. Among the numerous articles devoted to this subject by the main daily newspapers, RSF has especially noted the reaction of a reader of the New York Times to the debate provoked by the words of Bill Maher. éIt is the television stations that drop éPolitically Incorrecté and the advertisers that boycott the show, who are the ones guilty of a lack of patriotism, not its host Bill Maher. It would be chilling if one of the first casualties of our war for freedom was our right to debate all opinions vigorously, no matter how unpopular, here at home. Whatever the nature of Mr Maherés misinterpreted remarks, his rights and those of his guests to exercise freedom of speech should not be silenced.é (Scott Blakeman, New York, 26 September, 2001)
Above investigation was conducted by Alexandre Levy and Francois Buging for Reporters without Borders.