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Taking journalists by storm

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 6. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane…

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 6.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media faced harassment and access restrictions as they worked to tell the story. While trivial in comparison to the devastation wreaked upon residents of the Gulf Coast, the problems highlight what can happen to journalists when catastrophe strikes. Here is a timeline of newsgathering restrictions faced by journalists in the two weeks after Katrina pounded ashore:

Monday Aug. 29

Hurricane Katrina makes landfall.

Thursday Sept. 1

Reporters, photographers face police violence in New Orleans

Police harassed two Toronto Star journalists who found themselves caught in a police shootout that ended with police beating two suspects. Photographer Lucas Oleniuk shot about 350 pictures of the clash before officers ripped away his camera, removed its memory card and threatened to break his neck, reporter Tim Harper said on the radio and TV program “Democracy Now.” When Harper returned to the scene after being forced away at gunpoint, an officer threatened to shoot if they did not leave. They left with Oleniuk’s camera, but no memory card, which was never returned. “It was a day that things were quite clearly out of control. It was before any federal troops had come in to try and take control of the situation. New Orleans authorities were clearly way over their head at that point,” Harper told “Democracy Now.”

Police assaulted freelance photographer Marko Georgiev and Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell after Georgiev photographed a dead body in the street. “Before I knew it, I was thrown out of the car, the camera ripped from my hand, the other camera taken from the car, and I was on the car with my legs spread, hands up, a gun pointed in my neck,” Georgiev told News Photographer magazine. Russell had his notebook taken and thrown to the ground, but he retrieved it before heeding the officers’ commands that they leave the scene. Georgiev got his cameras back, but after leaving he realized one memory card was missing. He did not get his card back and says the card was confiscated on purpose. “When you open the card slot, you have to press a certain release button, then the card jumps out a little . . . . [In] my case I think the card was forced out of my camera,” Georgiev wrote in an e-mail.

Monday Sept. 5

Firefighters told to not speak to press

About 1,400 firefighters from across the country learned that their role in helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be handing out fliers with contact information for the agency, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. The paper quoted a firefighter who declined to give his name because FEMA ordered the firefighters not to talk to reporters.

Tuesday Sept. 6

FEMA requests that press not photograph dead bodies

In an e-mail response denying a Reuters request to accompany rescue boats, a FEMA spokeswoman wrote that journalists would not be allowed on boats and that “we have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.”

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Several news sources erroneously reported that FEMA was blocking or censoring photos of dead bodies.

Wednesday Sept. 7

National Guard restricts access in French Quarter

NBC anchor Brian Williams and his crew were ordered away from a scene where a National Guard unit was securing a shop. Told to move across Canal Street, Williams wrote in his Web blog that day: “The short version is: there won’t be any pictures of this particular group of Guard soldiers on our newscast tonight. Rules (or I suspect in this case an order on a whim) like those do not HELP the palpable feeling that this area is somehow separate from the United States.”

Reporter confronted at gunpoint

Members of the New Orleans Special Weapons and Tactics team surrounded San Francisco Chronicle reporter Peter Fimrite outside the house he and other Hearst Corp. journalists were staying in because Fimrite was outside using a cell phone after a government imposed curfew. The officers left after the military contractor hired by Hearst to protect the house explained to officers who Fimrite was and why he was outside post curfew. “It is essentially martial law in the Big Easy, and being outside without a press pass can be dangerous, if not deadly,” Fimrite wrote in the Chronicle.

Thursday Sept. 8

U.S. marshal escorts journalists away from a Mississippi scene

In Long Beach, Miss., a U.S. marshal escorted photographers Stephen Morton, shooting for Bloomberg News, and The Miami Herald’s Al Diaz away from the scene of a body being moved from under a demolished roof. “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 the marshal told them to move and escorted them at least 100 yards down the street, instructing them either to stay behind a truck or face arrest, Morton said. “It was quite clear there was no arguing with these people,” he said. They moved them from the scene, but “at no point did they say you can’t shoot this photo. They know better than to say you can’t take a picture.”

Friday Sept. 9

Military general restricts access, CNN files lawsuit

U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison grants a temporary restraining order against FEMA hours after CNN filed suit against then-agency Director Michael Brown, denouncing a “zero access” policy for press coverage of remaining dead bodies in New Orleans. (See story above.)

Saturday Sept. 10

FEMA reverses its policy on press coverage

In an emergency hearing in U.S. District Court in Houston, government officials reverse themselves, announcing they have “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.”

Monday Sept. 12

Army restricts access for San Francisco Chronicle team

A member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division told journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle that their credentials would be yanked and they would be kicked out of Louisiana if they wrote or took pictures of body recovery. The soldier told reporter Cecilia Vega and photographer Michael Macor that the Army had a policy requiring the media to be 300 meters from body recoveries in New Orleans.

Third hearing held in CNN case against FEMA

Judge Ellison rules in CNN’s case against FEMA that if he learned of violations against the press access policy, he would issue contempt citations against government officials.

Tuesday Sept. 13

Army enforces open media access policy

In response to the San Francisco Chronicle article about their journalists being threatened if they reported on the recovery of dead bodies in New Orleans, an Army spokesman clarified the military’s position. “Army Lt. Col. John Cornelio, spokesman to Lt. Gen. Russ Honore, said no restrictions are being placed on members of the media who are working independently of the military in the hurricane disaster zone,” the Chronicle reported.

&#151 Melanie Marquez