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'Terrorism and First Amendment' panelists differ on media access to war

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Dec 6, 2001    

‘Terrorism and First Amendment’ panelists differ on media access to war

  • Former officials from the Clinton administration praised expansive coverage during the current war, while veteran journalists say reporters enjoy considerable access in Afghanistan — but only in areas not under U.S. control.

As war brewed in Afghanistan, John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under former President Clinton, admitted that he worried the Pentagon would stifle coverage of the war and that the American people would learn little about a war fought in their name.

But then came the unfortunate deaths of eight journalists in the area, he said, evidence that the news media truly is getting access to the war.

“That’s testament that they really are at the front lines,” said Podesta, now a visiting professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. “They really are up close.”

But Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and a steering committee member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said reporters enjoy “excellent access to the areas of Afghanistan not under the control of the United States.”

Both men on Wednesday participated in a panel discussion on “Terrorism and the First Amendment” sponsored by the Washington D.C. Bar Association, the Reporters Committee and the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency, moderated the discussion.

Coincidentally, the panel convened the same day as the Pentagon locked war reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from covering American troops who were killed or wounded by a stray bomb north of Kandahar. The Pentagon apologized this morning for unnecessarily restricting reporters, admitted that it had made a mistake.

But veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett said this corralling of reporters has precedent. Arnett remembered the military during the invasion of Panama herded reporters away from the central battlefield for nearly 36 hours so they “could clean up so we don’t see anything.”

Like McManus, Arnett disagreed that the war has been covered extensively, noting that the true extent of the bombing on Afghanistan has never been revealed to the American people.

“That’s why Americans were surprised with the swiftness of the Taliban’s fall,” he said.

He noted, too, that the military has restricted follow-up interviews with Special Forces soldiers, which would let Americans understand some of the ground missions as well. Arnett said he also worries that the news media itself has accepted many restrictions and imposed self-censorship, partly in fear of bad publicity stateside.

Arnett and Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said the press has ineffectively covered the effects of such post-Sept. 11 measures as the PATRIOT Act and President Bush’s order creating military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.

But Judith Miller, former general counsel for the Department of Defense, said it might be too early to gauge the effect of either measure because the specifics of both have yet to be drawn out.

PT

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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