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FEMA drops 'zero access' policy after CNN wins court order

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   TEXAS   ·   Newsgathering   ·   Sep. 13, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   TEXAS   ·   Newsgathering   ·   Sep. 13, 2005

FEMA drops ‘zero access’ policy after CNN wins court order

  • A federal policy barring journalists from covering the recovery of dead bodies was ditched Saturday after a U.S. District Court judge in Houston issued a temporary restraining order.

Sep. 13, 2005  ·   Two days after federal officials said they were dropping a policy of zero access for journalists covering Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division told a reporter and a photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle Monday that their credentials would be yanked and they would be kicked out of Louisiana if they wrote or took pictures of body recovery.

The incident followed an announcement Saturday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it was dropping a policy barring journalists from covering the recovery of bodies killed by Katrina. The announcement, by attorneys for the agency, came in response to a lawsuit filed by Cable News Network in Houston’s U.S. District Court. The reversal came after U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison on Friday issued a temporary restraining order against the agency, saying it could not impede newsgathering.

CNN filed suit against then-FEMA Director Michael Brown Friday, arguing that the federal government could not keep news organizations from reporting on the recovery of the dead in New Orleans.

In a Saturday morning emergency hearing, U.S. Attorney Keith Wyatt read a statement from Joint Task Force Katrina announcing that the force “has no plans to bar, impede, or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts, including access to the sites, photographing or reporting.”

The suit and restraining order came after Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, overseer of the federal relief effort in New Orleans, announced early on Friday a zero access policy for press coverage of the recovery of remaining dead bodies in New Orleans.

CNN’s attorney, Charles Babcock, agreed that the terms of the emergency temporary restraining order were resolved by FEMA’s policy reversal, according to the transcript of the court hearing.

In the hearing, Wyatt said: “The only limitation that there would be is that the Department of Defense [and] FEMA does not believe the press has a right to be embedded with the recovery vehicles, recovery boats. But to the extent, the press can go out to the locations. They’re free to do that. They’re free to take whatever pictures they can take,” according to the court transcript.

In the Monday incident reported today by the San Francisco Chronicle, the 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters that the Army had a policy requiring the media to be 300 meters — longer than three football fields — from the body recoveries in New Orleans. The paper also reported that the soldier told reporters and photographers that violating the policy would result in losing access to coverage of certain military operations.

(Cable News Network v. Brown; Media counsel: Charles Babcock, Jackson Walker LLP, Houston, Texas)MM

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