The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief today on behalf of 19 news media organizations encouraging the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to recognize the public’s right to access government records of images depicting alleged acts of abuse at the Abu Ghraib military prison.
The media group urged the Second Circuit to affirm the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, which last September ordered that the government release the controversial photos and videos sought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others under the Freedom of Information Act, noting the public’s “substantial interest” in viewing the images.
“For the last 150 years, photographs have helped report important stories about war to the American people,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “The government’s argument in this case that the photographs are so disturbing and depict behavior so depraved that they should be hidden from the public masks the real issue in this case: whether the public will be allowed to hold government accountable.”
The brief argued that the government’s claims that the images should be withheld for privacy reasons — and for fear that their release might incite violence — were an attempt to shield their acts from the public so as to avoid accountability, and should be rejected by the court.
The government asserts that three separate privacy related exemptions to FOIA permit them to withhold the records, but as the brief points out, the exemptions do “not permit the government to hide records of its own misconduct or the misconduct of its agents based upon a fear of violent reactions to the disclosure,” and with all identifying characteristics of the images’ subjects masked, no privacy rights would be violated with their release.
“Providing citizens with information on government action is the very purpose that FOIA is intended to advance. . . . The district court properly recognized the media’s important public function in holding that releasing the images was not only required under FOIA, but illustrative of the entire purpose of the law,” the brief argued.
The images, termed the “Darby photographs” after the military policeman who first turned them over to the government, were first requested under FOIA by the ACLU in October 2003. When the government did not produce the documents, the ACLU sued to compel their release in September 2004. The Reporters Committee and other media organizations also filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the district court level.
Joining the Reporters Committee in this effort were ABC, Inc.; Advance Publications; the American Society of Newspaper Editors; The Associated Press; CBS Broadcasting, Inc.; CNN; E.W. Scripps Company; Hearst Corporation; Knight Ridder, Inc.; Military Reporters and Editors, Inc.; NBC Universal, Inc.; The Newspaper Association of America; Newspaper Guild-CWA; The Radio-Television News Directors Association; The Society of Professional Journalists; The New York Times Co., USA Today and The Washington Post.
The brief is available at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20060310-amicusbrie.html