Sept. 9, 2005 – As hurricane clean-up efforts kick into gear in New Orleans and the surrounding storm-ravaged areas, federal government officials have been taking action seemingly to prevent the news media from accurately reporting on the tragic human toll Hurricane Katrina has taken so far.
Top among the decrees is a request by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that news agencies refrain from photographing dead bodies.
Wednesday, Reuters reported that FEMA, which is under fire for allegedly mismanaging the relief effort, asked photographers not to take pictures of people killed by the storm, stating in an e-mail: "The recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect, and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased by made by the media."
A number of media freedom and government watchdogs immediately responded. Several critics allege that FEMA is hindering attempts to report on the impact and aftermath of the storm, a situation the groups say parallels media access policy for reporters covering Iraq and a number of other controversial beats.
Among the organizations complaining about the restrictions are the PEN American Center, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Project for Excellency in Journalism.
Additionally, several columnists, the Baltimore Sun editorial page editors and NBC News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams have all come forth to speak out about the recent and apparently growing effort to control the news coming from New Orleans.
In his personal weblog yesterday, Williams recounted being turned away from news sites by police and National Guardsmen.
"While we were attempting to take pictures of the National Guardâ€¦ taking up positions outside a Brooks Brothers on the edge of the [French] Quarter, the sergeant ordered us to the other side of the boulevard," Williams wrote. "At that same fire scene, a police officer from out of town raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media... obvious members of the media... armed only with notepads."
Williams did say the officer was told she was out-of-line, but later in the same entry, he noted that "the National Guard now bars entry (by journalists) to the very places where people last week were barred from LEAVING."
Yesterday, Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Gail Shister that FEMA was wholly engaged in public relations. "I think they want to minimize the perception that the government didn't do its job," Jones said. "I'm very suspicious of their motives."
The photography prohibition has not been effectively enforced; several news outlets have run pictures of the dead from New Orleans, the First Amendment Center noted yesterday.