Skip to content

Authorities stifle news media efforts to cover bridge collapse, prisons, hostage standoff

Post categories

  1. Newsgathering
From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

Journalists continue to encounter official interference as they gather the news. Recent barriers to newsgathering include physical restraints, undue secrecy of records and tight-lipped officials.

Physical restraints have ranged from blocked access to buildings to handcuffing of reporters. When a bridge collapsed in Oklahoma, reporters were not allowed to view the site even from unrestricted public property. One was handcuffed, while many more were threatened with arrest. In Colorado, officers detained a reporter at the scene of a hostage standoff. And in New York, all newsgathering by reporters from The Post-Standard of Syracuse is prohibited on some Indian territory. Most recently, a pair of Californian photographers had film seized at the site where 5-year-old murder victim Samantha Runnion’s body was found.

But resistance to new restrictions is strong: in Massachusetts, a set of limits placed on media at many state prisons is being met with friction and an American reporter in Zimbabwe is being allowed to stay in the country after a public outcry at his expulsion under the country’s tough new press laws.


Oklahoma deputies, county officials bar journalists from clean-up site

Journalists descended upon the small town of Webbers Falls, Okla., on May 26 after a barge struck the Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River. Reporters and television crews from nearby municipalities and far-off national bureaus expected all of the struggles that usually come with covering a disaster, but not the harsh barriers to access they encountered.

Not only were all media confined to a small drugstore parking lot miles from the collapse site, but journalists were repeatedly threatened by officials when they neared the bridge or requested interviews or photographs of cleanup workers.

Overall, reporters and photographers on the scene have been treated like “enemy No. 1,” according to Sue Hale, executive editor of The Oklahoman.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating admitted on May 29 that police went too far in restricting access to the site and information about victims, noting that the town’s mayor offered an apology after the police detained a reporter.

While walking in an unrestricted public park roughly a mile from the bridge, Sheila Stogsdill, a stringer reporter for The Oklahoman, was threatened by a Tulsa medical examiner and handcuffed by a Webbers Falls police officer. Although officials never told Stogsdill what crime she was suspected of committing, they detained her at a nearby police station.

Stogsdill said that at the station Mayor Jewell Horne immediately reprimanded the officers and broke down into tears saying “this should not have happened” and insisted upon Stogsdill’s release.

Also, law enforcement officers threatened two Associated Press reporters with arrest at least four times, while others warned Tulsa television reporters about filming near a public road. The Tulsa Medical Examiner’s Office also barred a Texas television reporter from public land and threatened arrest.

Hale said Webbers Falls, a small township near Tulsa, might be intimidated by the surge of national media attention.

“It’s a small town, and they’ve never had anything like this before,” she said. “They are overwhelmed with so much media in the area.”

T.D. Morgan, chief of police for a nearby town that supplied officers to the scene, said he does not feel that, as a public official, he has any responsibility to speak to the media or allow them access to the area.

“And I tell my men not to talk to the reporters at all, either,” Morgan said.

Stogsdill said she felt “more like they were told to run us off.”

The intimidation reached the point at which newsgathering was stymied. When photographers appeared on the site, for example, National Guardsmen and cleanup crews were told to stop their efforts temporarily to hinder photo opportunities.

“All of the men are told to stop their work, making it pointless to take a picture because they are just standing,” Hale said.


Sheriff fails to return film confiscated at murder scene

An Associated Press photographer and free-lance videographer had film and video seized while they covered the discovery of a young murder victim’s body in southern California have not been able to get their materials back from sheriff’s department officials.

The two were told to stop taking pictures and news footage and were forced to turn over their materials to investigators from two California sheriff’s departments on July 16.

At dusk, photographer Steven Doi and videographer John Casper encountered three Orange County and Riverside County homicide investigators on a wooded mountain where 5-year-old Samantha Runnion’s body was found earlier that day.

The two journalists say they ventured from the roadside where most camera crews and reporters were congregated at one edge of the crime scene to explore its boundaries. After finding a back road that led up the mountain, they began taking footage of a group of sheriff’s officials when they were called over and reprimanded for being inside the crime scene.

“At no point did I ever cross yellow tape,” said Doi, who had two flash cards — the electronic “film” in a digital camera — confiscated.

Doi and his editors at the AP called the two sheriff’s departments every day for a week, demanding release of his film. He said he received two flash cards in his home mailbox on July 23, exactly one week after they were seized. Casper has also requested his film, but it has yet to be returned.

The officers examined the men’s drivers licences before informing them that they could be contaminating the crime scene, which the officials said extended five miles across the mountain. It was not marked and several hiking trails led directly into the area the investigators said was restricted, according to the journalists.

Casper said he had shut off his camera. But he began filming the encounter with the officers when he was told to turn off his camera. An officer then reached over to shut it off, and another told the men to hand over their film.

“Usually with the sheriffs we have been successful at negotiating while on crime scenes,” said Casper, who sells his video to several Los Angeles television stations and has worked as a video technician for CBS. “I thought this was something that only happened in China or in Alabama in the ’50s.”

The reporters received makeshift receipts for their material. One was a business card with, scribbled on the back, “videotape seized as evidence.” One officer told the pair they would be able to reclaim their property within 24 hours; another said a federal lawsuit would be necessary.

The three investigative officers escorted the men back to the yellow-taped area where other media had congregated.


Zimbabwe seeks to deport reporter tried under tough new press laws

An American citizen, who became the first journalist to test Zimbabwe’s harsh new media laws, earned a reprieve from demands that he leave the country.

Andrew Meldrum, a reporter working for Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper, was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours after being acquitted of publishing falsehoods. But an appellate judge, Justice Anele Matika, asked the supreme court to rule on whether the original court action was constitutional, thus reviving Meldrum’s right to live and work in the country.

Meldrum first appeared in court June 12 as the first of a dozen journalists to be tried on charges of “abuse of journalistic privileges” by printing information about a woman’s death that conflicted with government accounts. In his original hearing, the 50-year-old U.S. citizen could have faced up to two years in jail under the country’s new security and media laws, which essentially make publishing critical information on the government a crime. Meldrum pleaded not guilty.

Meldrum said deportation was another means of prior restraint for Zimbabwe’s government. “The Mugabe government does not want to see me, or any other journalist . . . holding the government accountable for the good of all the people of this country,” Meldrum told the BBC.

The U.S. State Department has denounced the country’s “use of new draconian laws” that restrict the freedom of speech in Zimbabwe.

“The United States condemns the government of Zimbabwe’s continuing harassment of the free press and calls on it to cease all such action,” department spokesman Richard Boucher told the Associated Press.

In late July, two more journalists stood trial for similar charges of publishing falsehoods. The pair, Geoff Nyarota, editor of the country’s only independent news source, the Daily News, and a reporter, Lloyd Mudiwa, argue that some provisions of the new media law should be found unconstitutional.

Meldrum was arrested and jailed for publishing an account of an alleged beheading of a northwestern Zimbabwe woman by the country’s ruling party under President Robert Mugabe. He picked up the story after reading accounts of the incident in Zimbabwe’s only independent daily news source, the Daily News.

Soon after, the government denied the killing happened. The Daily News retracted and apologized for its original article. Two of the paper’s reporters, Mudiwa and Collin Chiwanza, were arrested April 30, the day before Meldrum was picked up.

Zimbabwe’s new Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which was passed in February and took effect on March 22, allows for journalists found to have published “falsehoods” to be fined up to $1,900 and jailed for up to two years. The law also forbids foreign reporters from working in the country and prohibits criticism of the country’s leadership and law enforcement.

The Associated Press and Reuters are considering whether to accept regulations requiring a $12,000 registration fee and to open their accounts to government officials to keep reporting and publishing in the country. According to Meldrum, the fees will fund the commission responsible for revoking such licenses.

The journalists are being sped through trial and are being harshly punished under the new access law, said Robert Menard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that advocates global press freedom.

“Usually when journalists are arrested in Zimbabwe, they are freed on bail almost immediately, after which the case . . . rarely comes to anything,” Menard said. “In this instance, the government seems to have decided to fast-track this case and apply this very repressive law.”

Although it is still unclear how and why the woman died, Meldrum maintains that he did not knowingly publish the story without verifying the case’s facts, according to his attorney Beatrice Mtetwa.

The U.S. State Department would not comment on possible moves to support Meldrum, but spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz said the department “obviously supports freedom of the press wherever U.S. citizens are.”


Indian nation bans reporters from territory, declines interviews

The Oneida Nation of New York cut off communication with a Syracuse newspaper after tribal officials became upset about several news stories that leaders say “manufactured a negative angle.”

Oneida spokesman Jerry Reed said reporters from The Post-Standard are indefinitely barred from entering Oneida Nation territory or speaking to officials. The stories prompting the restrictions were reported by Glenn Coin and included quotes from sources critical of the nation’s casino resort, bingo hall and new golf course.

“There was a series of articles that could have been positive, that always have a negative slant to them, and the nation just decided to end communications with that newspaper,” Reed said.

Editors at The Post-Standard stand by Coin’s work, describing the news stories under scrutiny by the Oneidas as “always balanced.” Coin is still on the beat, assigned to cover the Oneida and occasionally other Iroquois tribes.

Because it functions as an independent government, the Nation is exempt from federal laws, like the Freedom of Information Act. In this light, even policy and financial decisions that affect the public living on or around the reserve land could be kept secret legally.

Traditionally, the Nation has not allowed reporters to attend meetings of the Clan Mothers or Men’s Council, the key lawmakers for the Nation.

Reed said that contrary to earlier reports, the Nation has not ended communications with any other media. The Oneidas have what Reed sees as a “great relationship” with other surrounding newspapers.

Michael Connor, executive editor of The Post-Standard, said the Oneidas are unfairly limiting the paper’s ability to give fair and thorough coverage by implementing the embargo on communications.

“It doesn’t hurt us,” Connor said. “It hurts the story and the coverage because secrecy breeds suspicion. And ultimately, it hurts the institution that is denying access, because their story is not getting out as completely or not accurately.”

The Oneidas have banned reporters from the same newspaper at least once before. In the mid-1990s, a similar situation arose in which the nation responded to a few critical stories by trying to silence the paper’s coverage by not speaking to reporters from The Post-Standard. The nation has never denied territory access to another publication, a spokesman said.

Connor said The Post-Standard pledges to continue attempts to contact the nation for every story that has to do with them, in hopes that “they will realize quickly that it is better for them to get their story out than to try to silence the coverage.”


Reporter in Colorado detained near hostage standoff site

While observing and photographing a drug-store hostage situation on July 17 in Canon City, Colo., a reporter for the Canyon Current was arrested and detained briefly after disobeying a law enforcement officer’s order to relocate.

Ben Timberlake, a reporter at the weekly newspaper, observed the standoff taking place at the Palace Drug store from a store across the city’s Main Street. He and a few other newspaper staff members had received approval from a Canon police officer to remain at the back of Naked Woods, an unfinished furniture store, where they were able to view the event from a distance.

The hostage situation began when an armed man entered the drug store in the late morning and fired one or more shots after being refused drugs he had ordered. One employee of the store was held hostage until 7:30 that evening when the man exited the front of the store firing shots and was critically wounded by an officer shooting back.

When his fellow reporters relocated several hours into the standoff, Timberlake remained at the store but was soon advised by officers to attend a press conference being held down the street. An officer told him to leave the store, but Timberlake said he opted to stay.

“I told him that another reporter from our newspaper was already covering the conference, and it’s not like I needed to leave the area,” Timberlake said. “It was not especially dangerous. Although there was a sniper stationed out front, there was a lot of furniture in between us and the gunman, and the owner and his daughter were just going about their work refinishing furniture in the back.”

The reporter was the only one ordered to evacuate the store.

“They treated the press differently than how they treated other citizens,” Timberlake said. “The civilians in the store were not told to leave, but I was.”

A deputy arrested the reporter upon his refusal to leave for obstruction of a peace officer. The reporter said he was then handcuffed by a sergeant from the sheriff’s department and detained for 20 minutes outside the building. He said he was then held another 20 minutes in a deputy’s car before being escorted to his newspaper’s office.

Timberlake’s charges are pending with the district attorney’s office. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Department, which issued the summons and arrested Timberlake, would not comment. The Canon City Police Department, which called the sheriff’s department for assistance during the standoff, is handling charges against the reporter. Department officials were not available for comment.

Timberlake has not been formally booked, but the police department is considering formal charges, according to the district attorney. He is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 13.


Prison officials in Massachusetts limit media’s access to inmates

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections restricted the media’s access to inmates by banning cameras and tape recorders at medium- and maximum-security prisons, requiring official supervision of all interviews and prohibiting interviews with inmates held in segregation.

Prison officials designed the new access restrictions and continue to enforce the regulations despite criticism at a June 14 hearing. At the hearing, groups of citizens, lawyers and lawmakers said the restrictions are an unnecessary precaution and show the prison system has something to hide.

Peter Constanza, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, confirmed to The Boston Globe that press restrictions like Massachusetts prison system’s so-called “security” measures are becoming all too popular.

“This is a typical move made by any government entity that doesn’t want people outside to see what’s going on,” Constanza said.

Prison officials finalized the regulations after the public hearing, according to prison spokesman Justin Latini. He said many of the new restrictions mirror other states’ recent moves to cinch off interaction between inmates and the media.

Since 1996, when California banned most face-to-face prisoner interviews, a number of states, including Virginia, Florida and Michigan, have enacted tougher access codes. For example, cameras are now banned in Michigan prisons and reporters have restricted hours in which to conduct inmate interviews.

Massachusetts’ ban on unsupervised interviews has the potential to keep inmates from speaking candidly with representatives of the media, especially about corruption within the prison system, opponents say. But state prison officials say this practice is nothing new, adding that they imposed reporter supervision as an informal policy years ago.

Civil libertarians, legislators and lawyers are alarmed by the complete barring of access to inmates in top security areas, otherwise known as segregation. Inmates are typically placed in segregation for assaulting guards or fellow prisoners.

John Reinstein, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, called the blanket ban on access to segregated inmates “extraordinary” in an interview with The Globe.

“If there is anyone that needs a window to the outside world, it’s prisoners in the most severe category of confinement,” Reinstein said.

Inmates are typically in confinement for six months, but in certain cases, segregation has lasted up to 10 years.

The prison system justifies the restriction as a move to keep reporters safe by keeping them away from the most dangerous inmates. But other stipulations, like the ban on recording devices, would include all but seven of the state’s prisons — those with a minimum level of security. Filming for use in documentaries may still be permitted in high-security buildings, and television stations will be allowed in annually to get stock footage.

Prohibiting filming and taping not only puts journalists at risk of not being able to defend an interview’s accuracy but would directly limit the reporting capabilities of broadcasters and Internet publishers.

Advocates of the restrictions say some video coverage violates victim privacy by having the potential to re-expose them to the criminal or force them to relive the crime by seeing it in the media. Philip Silva, legal counsel for the Massachusetts prison system, said he feels the changes are based upon “legitimate security concerns” at a time when television shows “make celebrities of criminals.”


Vermont man banned again from state court system

A man who describes himself as a “citizen-reporter” has again been barred from Vermont state courts by a federal court action.

Scott Huminski, a 42-year-old political hopeful, can be punished for entering any courthouse in the state after a U.S. district judge lifted his earlier injunction against original no-trespass orders against the reporter. Judge J. Garvan Murtha’s original injunction was issued Feb. 27, 2001.

Huminski said his plans to run for Bennington County state’s attorney are being hindered by the restraint, as is his right to free expression. He plans to appeal the dissolution of the injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.).

Huminiski began protesting outside of the Rutland County Courthouse more than two years ago by parking his truck in the courthouse’s lot and displaying signs critical of County Judge Nancy Corsones. Corsones issued an order banning him from state courts in May of that year.

Corsones’ decision was upheld by an appellate court, but Murtha granted a preliminary injunction against the trespassing orders, finding that Huminski was denied access from state courts as a retaliation for his criticism of Corsones. But

on July 11, Murtha determined that Huminski presented a possible safety risk for the subjects of his protests and removed his injunction.

Huminski said he was acting as a citizen-reporter by consistently attending hearings and trials in order to report to the public — through signs and public displays — of abuses in the judicial system. — CL