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Journalists covering Katrina's aftermath report restrictions

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   LOUISIANA   ·   Newsgathering   ·   Sep. 9, 2005

Journalists covering Katrina’s aftermath report restrictions

  • Some officials are restricting access to victims and disaster areas left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked journalists not to take pictures of people killed by the storm.

Sep. 9, 2005  ·   The Federal Emergency Management Agency requested earlier this week that photojournalists not take pictures of the dead victims of Hurricane Katrina, while some journalists working to tell the story of the storm’s aftermath report problems gaining access to victims and disaster areas.

At least six journalists, including NBC news anchor Brian Williams, reported they were asked by various officials to leave areas where they were gathering news in Louisiana or Mississippi.

In Mississippi, two photographers were restricted from a public area by a federal marshal Thursday while Williams and his crew were ordered Wednesday to cease filming on a downtown New Orleans street. In some incidents, journalists reported that guns were drawn on them by law enforcement officers.

In New Orleans Wednesday, the National Guard ordered Williams and his film crew away from a store on Canal Street.

“I have searched my mind for some justification for why I can’t be reporting in a calm and heavily defended American city and cannot find one,” Williams told The Washington Post. “I don’t like being told when I can and cannot walk on the streets and take pictures.”

The paper reported that Williams “grumbled and told his crew to stop shooting” because, Williams said, “authority in New Orleans is as good as the last person to make the rule. I didn’t have time to take it up the chain.”

In Long Beach, Miss., photographers Stephen Morton, shooting for Bloomberg, and The Miami Herald‘s Al Diaz were escorted away from the scene of a body being recovered from under a demolished roof Thursday afternoon.

“We didn’t walk right up to the scene because we didn’t want to intrude,” Morton said. He and Diaz were standing about 75 yards away when a U.S. marshal told them to move and escorted them at least 100 yards down the street, instructing them to stay behind a truck or face arrest, Morton said. “It was quite clear there was no arguing with these people,” he said.

Peter Fimrite, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, reported Friday that law enforcement pointed at least five automatic weapons at him in New Orleans Wednesday night when he stepped into a street after a 6 p.m. curfew to use his cell phone in an area where service is sporadic.

The short stand-off ended after the intervention of a former member of the Navy special forces and his team, who had been hired by Chronicle owner Hearst Corp. to protect the house where 17 Hearst journalists, including Fimrite, are staying.

“It is essentially martial law in the Big Easy, and being outside without a press pass can be dangerous, if not deadly,” Fimrite wrote.

A reporter and photographer from the Canadian Toronto Star reported being victims of police violence while covering a clash between police and looters, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The organization reported that police threatened reporter Tim Harper and photographer Lucas Oleniuk several times at gunpoint and hurled Oleniuk to the ground after realizing that he had photographed them hitting looters. Police removed memory cards containing about 350 pictures from his two cameras, according to Reporters Without Borders’ Web site. Police declined his request for his pictures and threatened him, the group said.

Last week, Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell and freelance photographer Marko Georgiev, shooting for The New York Times, reported that they were threatened by police as they gathered news in New Orleans.

Georgiev told the National Press Photographers Association: “We came upon a body [while driving] apparently shot by the police. While I was still driving I took a few photos through the open window and I heard an officer yell, ‘Get that camera, now!’ About a half dozen cops started running toward the car. Since the car was still in motion, and I saw them drawing and raising their guns at us and afraid they would shoot us, I slammed on the brakes. “

Georgiev told the group that he was thrown from the car by police and had his cameras taken and car searched. The cameras were ultimately returned after Georgiev and Russell told police they were press.

Earlier this week, FEMA declined a Reuters’ request for a reporter and photographer to accompany rescue boats searching for flood victims in New Orleans. In declining the request, the agency asked reporters not to take photographs of the dead victims, which sparked false news reports that FEMA was blocking photos of the dead.

Chris Stanfield, president of the Associated Press Photo Managers, looked into reports of FEMA banning photos of dead flood victims. He said certain reports were misleading and he urged government agencies and news organizations to cooperate in “trying to tell this terrible story.”

Despite FEMA’s request, in certain areas photographers have not faced access restrictions, said Mark Schleifstein, environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune. Journalists have accompanied rescue boats operated by volunteers or state and local officials, he said.


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