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Journalists face arrests, obstacles after terrorist attacks

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From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.

From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caused considerable problems for journalists not only logistically but legally. Reporters accustomed to open access to places such as the U.S. Senate floor and police stations occasionally found themselves under scrutiny by law enforcement and the courts. And then there were some who literally tested the boundaries of a free press either by examining the effectiveness of patrols at the nation’s borders or tromping into ground zero without proper credentials.

Photographer arrested over WTC incident asks for return of film

Caught up in the swell of the destruction in New York City on Sept. 11, photographer Stephen Ferry came across some firefighters’ gear on a truck and put it on for protection from the fire and smoke.

A civilian rescue worker later handed him an empty toolbox, which Ferry used to store some camera equipment.

And now the photographer faces a variety of charges, including criminal impersonation, for snagging the equipment.

“At the moment when I put on that firemen’s garb, I had no idea that the fire department had taken all those losses,” said Ferry, noting that he had no access to television or radio news broadcasts while he was rushing around ground zero immediately after the attack. “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have put the stuff on. Knowing that they’d lost lots of people, it’s pretty insensitive.”

New York State Supreme Court Judge Micki Scherer was to decide Feb. 13 whether Ferry is entitled to have 28 rolls of confiscated film returned to him, said Ferry’s attorney, Jack Litman of Manhattan.

Ferry was on assignment for Time magazine when he was charged with several misdemeanors, including criminal impersonation, after firefighters found him wearing New York City Fire Department coveralls and a hard hat and carrying a firefighter’s toolbox. On Sept. 13, he was charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument, a felony, after he showed an altered New York driver’s license to police as identification.

Ferry said he had lost his wallet and license while on assignment in Colombia. He changed the expiration date on an old license to use as identification outside the country while he waited for a replacement license from the New York Division of Motor Vehicles, he said.

When police officers at ground zero asked to see his identification on Sept. 13, he showed the altered license and immediately told them it was “no good,” according to police documents.

Ferry was jailed for four days. He rejected a plea bargain that would require him to plead guilty to the felony in return for probation and no return of the photos.

Assistant District Attorney William Beesch argued in court documents that Ferry should not be allowed to profit financially or professionally from photographs that were taken while committing a crime. Ferry offered to donate any money he makes from publication of the photographs to a charity.

“He’s not interested in personal glory or financial compensation,” said Litman, his attorney. “He simply wants these important photographs taken immediately after the disaster added to the historical record.” (New York v. Ferry)

Police arrest photographer at New York’s Ground Zero

New York police arrested a New York Times photographer on Jan. 11 near the World Trade Center, saying his press credentials had expired.

Police charged Edward Keating with criminal trespassing and confiscated a roll of film. Keating was to appear in court on Feb. 19 to respond to the charge. Police said that Keating was not allowed in a restricted area where workers were recovering the remains of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Catherine Mathis, a Times spokeswoman, said Keating, 45, was on assignment for the newspaper. She said company officials didn’t have a lot of specific information about Keating’s arrest but said it stemmed from an expired press pass.

“We will be speaking with officials to determine what appropriate course we should take,” Mathis said.

Deputy police commissioner poses as journalist to nab gunman

Barely two weeks into his stint as deputy commissioner of public information for the New York Police Department, Michael O’Looney faced his first serious on-the-job challenge when he stepped into the 19th precinct on Jan. 15 and saw a man holding a cocked .38-caliber gun to the head of a detective.

Adrian Lebovici, wanted on charges of aggravated harassment, wanted to talk to a reporter. For O’Looney, who only 16 days earlier had been a television reporter, a decision had to come quick.

“He was ready to take him out,” said O’Looney, who stepped forward to talk to Lebovici. “There was not time for a really long debate. I had all of 30 seconds.”

O’Looney, a general assignment reporter for WCBS/Channel 2 for six years of his 10-year broadcasting career, happened to have several of his old business cards in his pocket. Police had also borrowed press credentials from Tom Cassidy, a reporter with WPIX/Channel 11, but didn’t use them.

O’Looney talked to Lebovici, who turned his gun over several hours later. The unidentified detective was sent to a nearby hospital but was not injured.

Barbara Cochran, president of Radio-Television News Directors Association, said she couldn’t comment specifically about the incident. But she said such situations complicate matters in the future for journalists who confront dangerous people questioning whether they are really journalists.

“Our longstanding position has been to discourage law enforcement officials from portraying themselves as journalists because we think it undermines the journalists’ independence and makes it more dangerous for journalists in the future,” Cochran said.

Those are valid concerns, O’Looney agreed. But he said the situation he faced — a police detective with a gun to his head — required a different response.

“In a perfect world, I would never do it,” he said. “But in that situation, I would absolutely do it again.”

Police detain photographer taking pictures of nuclear power plant

Police took a news photographer into custody after he took photos of a nuclear power plant in southern Vermont.

Jason Henske was taking pictures on Nov. 28 for an article in the Brattleboro Reformer on Vermont Yankee. Henske was not on the property of the power plant when he took the photos but was asked to accompany Vernon Police Chief Randy Wheelock to the city’s police department.

Henske was detained for two hours before being released with his camera and his photos.

According to the Brattleboro Reformer, State’s Attorney Dan Davis said that under Vermont law, taking pictures of a nuclear power plant when the nation is at war can, depending on the circumstances, be a felony carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

The section, Vermont Statute Title 13, Section 3481, titled “Treason and other offenses against the government,” states that a “person who, without permission of lawful authority, while the United States is at war or threatened with war, makes or attempts to make any map, drawing, plan, model, description, or picture of any military camp, fort, armory, arsenal, bridge, road, canal, dockyard, telephone or telegraph line or equipment, railway or property of any corporation subject to the supervision of the public service board, or of any municipality or part thereof, shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years.”

A picture of the plant’s control room, however, appears on the official Vermont Yankee Web site.

No official charges were brought against the photographer.

Capital Police shut down Senate gallery after Thurmond collapses

The media was the subject of a blackout imposed by Senate officials and Capital Police after Sen. Strom Thur-mond (R-S.C.) collapsed on the Senate floor on Oct. 2.

The viewing galleries were shuttered, television cameras controlled by the Senate were turned off, and a security perimeter was established, forcing reporters to leave the second floor hallways. The effort restricted movement in the East Front Plaza of the U.S. Capitol.

“It concerns me when you have a potentially huge news story unfold on the floor of the Senate, and the press has no access,” said Curt Anderson, an Associated Press reporter.

During the 20 minutes it took for medical personnel to escort Thurmond out of the building and into an ambulance, there were no visual images from the Senate floor.

Brian Lamb, chairman and CEO of C-SPAN, said: “It gives you an example why it is problematic when the government controls cameras for an event.”

A spokesman for the Capital Police told Roll Call, that the gallery was cleared to set up a perimeter for medical personnel and was not planned to stifle media coverage.

Broadcast reporters detained, fined for testing U.S.-Canadian border

Two televison reporters faced $5,000 in civil fines after Border Patrol officers in East Franklin, Vt., caught them entering the country illegally.

“All persons, including journalists, who attempt to enter the United States illegally as a ‘test,’ divert valuable resources from other areas where they may be needed during this heightened state of security,” the Immigration and Naturalization Service said in a written statement.

Border Patrol and U.S. Custom officials refused to identify the two journalists arrested on Oct. 18 without a Freedom of Information Act request and said the names of detainees weren’t public record. But a spokesman for the Border Patrol said they held the two journalists under surveillance for more than two hours after they illegally entered the United States from Canada. The journalists were later fined $500 each.

According to the Justice Department: “It is illegal for a person to intentionally cross the border at a place other than a port of official entry.” East Franklin, Vt., is not an official port of entry into the United States.

Los Angeles journalist pleads guilty to posing as judge to get records

A reporter for a Japanese newspaper on Jan. 14 pleaded guilty to pretending he was a federal official so that he could secure documents about scientists accused of theft.

Avi Lidgi, a reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, faces up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000. Lidgi, an American citizen, assisted other reporters in gathering information.

Federal officials claimed Lidgi, 27, falsely identified himself three times last May in an attempt to get a list of government exhibits in the cases faxed to him. They said Lidgi secured a list of the exhibits from defense attorneys and prosecutors by saying he was a federal prosecutor and a judge’s assistant.

A grand jury in Cleveland indicted Lidgi on Dec. 12. Lidgi’s sentencing is set for April 12.

The government secrets case involves two scientists accused of stealing research material from the Cleveland Clinic. Both Hiroaki Serizawa of the University of Kansas Medical Center and Takashi Okamoto, a former clinic scientist, pleaded not guilty and face a trial in May.

Tribes ask news media to purchase licenses to visit reservation

Reporters in Idaho continue to venture into a local American Indian reservation despite threats of being thrown off the property, after the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in southeastern Idaho decided to require all news media to purchase licenses for access to their reservation.

Failure to acquire a license can result in being removed from the property, as two reporters from different local television stations recently experienced.

“It’s required for all businesses,” said Wendy Farmer, a business license officer for the tribes. “The media is a business. We’re not singling them out.”

Editors at area newspapers and television stations say they are opposed to the licenses requiring them to pay $150 a year or $25 a day to report news from the reservation.

“Asking me to pay a fee to collect the opinions and ideas of (the tribes) is asking me to abridge a certain group of tenets,” said Dean Miller, managing editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls.

The 1992 Tribal Business License Act states that any persons or businesses interacting with the tribes by “engaging in or carrying on any trade, business, profession or commercial activity” must comply with the act and purchase an annual business license.

“We’re supposed to be a sovereign nation with a sovereign government,” Farmer said. “They need to abide by our laws.”

However, three local television stations, as well as the Post Register, will not purchase licenses, according to company officials and Miller.

“We refuse the offer respectfully,” Miller said. “But we’ll go to the reservation when we need to and want to . . . For us to go to collect information freely falls squarely under the First Amendment.”

Omaha police drops plan to check journalists’ backgrounds

Omaha, Neb., Police Chief Donald Carey proposed requiring background checks and fingerprinting of reporters who cover police work as one effort to improve security within the department after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He dropped the proposal after reporters claimed it amounted to a licensing of the news media.

Sgt. Daniel Cesar said the checks and fingerprinting proposal would have required members of the press to be subject to background checks and fingerprinting in order to obtain press credentials and access to police headquarters.

The proposal was made in late November but dropped on Dec. 5 after media organizations presented another option.

“Since there were a few reporters who already had identification cards, and we were assured that many news organizations and especially TV stations did their own criminal check on their employees, we decided not to pursue it,” Cesar said.

“We basically left it as the news stations’ responsibility to provide us with a list of current employees and who has authorization to those credentials, ” Cesar added.

Before Sept. 11, reporters needed only a police press credential for access to the building.

Cesar said he worried that unreturned cards could get into the wrong hands. Under the new agreement, news agencies make sure all Omaha City Police credentials are returned after a reporter leaves. — MD, PT, HP, KG