Managed News, Stifled Views:
On January 28, shortly after the start of the Persian Gulf War, the Fund for Free Expression issued "Freedom of Expression and the War," a report on U.S. Defense Department regulations that impede press coverage in the Gulf, and on other U.S. war-related censorship issues. This newsletter updates that information in light of developments to date. It also provides a list of other available resources on freedom of expression consequences of the war in the United States and in other countries around the world.
"If you were to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn't be done any better than this is being done."
-- Michael Deaver, former deputy Chief of Staff for President Reagan
Mr. Deaver was referring to the Pentagon's handling of media coverage of Operation Desert Storm. In contrast to the Vietnam War, when reporters could travel freely, bound only by voluntary guidelines about matters of military security, journalists can cover the Gulf War only in "pools," accompanied at all times by Pentagon "public affairs" escorts, and all their dispatches reviewed in advance by a military censor. (These policies were described and analyzed in the Fund's January 28 newsletter, "Freedom of Expression and the War," which is available from Human Rights Watch.)
This follow-up report concerns the implementation of those policies now that the war has gone on for over one month. The experience of journalists in the Persian Gulf during that time bears out fears that the Pentagon would use the new rules to limit public information about the conduct of the war and stifle embarrassing information or criticism. On the home front, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation has defended its program of interviewing Arab-Americans as part of its mandate to protect the U.S. from terrorism, many of those contacted have been treated as if they were suspects and subjected to political inquiries. The war appears to command public support, but a number of recent incidents appear to suggest that, as during the Vietnam War, many Americans -- including some in public office -- appear to equate questioning and dissent with disloyalty.
Department of Defense guidelines require reporters covering the war to travel as part of "pools" organized by the military and accompanied by Pentagon public affairs "escorts." At this writing, there are approximately 1,400 journalists in the Persian Gulf. Only 192 of them, including technicians and photographers, are placed in press pools with combat forces. 1 According to The New York Times:
Testifying before a February 20 Senate hearing on press coverage of the war, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams defended the rules, asserting that, without them, "masses of reporters would try to wander through the war zone, risking their lives and those of the troops." 3 With limited exceptions, however, such as D-Day (when 27 reporters went ashore with the first wave of forces) 4, pools were not used in any U.S. war until the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The Defense Department commission appointed after widespread criticism of press restraints during the Grenada invasion called for limited use of pools only if necessary to assure early press access to a military operation, and then only for "the minimum time possible." 5
Enforcement of the pool requirement during the war to date has been characterized, in the words of Associated Press reporter Mort Rosenblum, who was detained for three hours for reporting without an escort, 6
by "strong-arm" tactics on the part of the military:
These journalists tried to break free of government censors to do their job of gathering the news. But even reporters who have cooperated with the procedures have been stymied. When pool reporter Douglas Jehl of the Los Angeles Times reported that 50 U.S. military vehicles were missing, censors cleared his story, but later complained it was contrary to the "best interests" of the military and ordered him to leave the press pool. 13
It appears that some reporters are so frustrated by the pool system that normal competition for stories has been accelerated to an extreme degree. Robert Fisk reports that when he approached a Marine unit outside Khafji, a U.S. network reporter "started shouting abuse at me, telling me to go back to Dhahran and saying I would spoil it for the pool," and calling over a U.S. Marine public affairs officer and a Saudi police officer, who threatened to pull his accreditation. According to Fisk, "the people in the pool ... have lost some of their critical faculties and become part of the military machine." 14
Another issue that has been raised in connection with the press pools is preferential treatment of American and British journalists. Three hundred European and Asian journalists are presently restricted to three combat reporting spaces, and have threatened to move en masse to the front unless they are allocated more. 15 Agence France-Presse has threatened to sue the U.S. Department of Defense over its exclusion from the photo pool. 16
In contrast to the barriers imposed on foreign journalists, the Pentagon has a special program which has invited at least 450 local U.S. reporters to visit Saudi Arabia at military expense. The "hometowners" spend up to four days with troops from their cities, and what they write is often extremely favorable to their military hosts. Bob Locke, a city editor at the El Paso Times, who visited the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment, stationed in nearby Fort Bliss, told The Texas Observer that "we couldn't afford to send anyone otherwise." 17
In its earlier report on this issue, The Fund for Free Expression called on the Department of Defense to rescind its press curbs. With a ground war now underway, abandonment or significant reform of the press pools becomes imperative. Army Colonel Robert L. Burke, who served as the Pentagon chief of information in Vietnam, believes it will be "an extremely violent, lethal situation in which a lot is going to happen. It will be extremely confusing on the ground and in the air ... It will be real tough to cover" if reporters do not have direct access as in Vietnam. Burke told The Washington Post that the difference between what Vietnam reporters saw in the field and what military briefers were saying in Saigon was so great that it undermined the briefers' credibility. 18
The best-known case of non-compliance with Pentagon press pools is that of CBS correspondent Bob Simon and his three-member crew, who abandoned the pool and went missing for over three weeks. There are reports that they have turned up in Baghdad, under detention by the Iraqi military, on February 15. Simon had been quoted in the New York Times and USA Today expressing frustration with what he viewed as the Pentagon's effort to "sanitize" news coverage of the war. 19
The military's efforts to limit press access to the troops extends even to those killed in battle. Shortly after the start of the war on January 16, the Pentagon initiated a ban on public and media access to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of U.S. soldiers are returned from the war. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing several journalists, the Military Families Support Network, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and other groups, has filed suit to overturn the ban, asserting that the Pentagon has offered no national security justification for the new policy and dismissing the Government's contention that privacy considerations are involved, because individual servicemembers are not identified. Kate Martin, the principal ACLU attorney in the case, argues that "the sole reason the base has been closed is that the government doesn't wish the American public to see graphic images of numbers of caskets lined up, and that's an unconstitutional reason." 20
Although the Pentagon's rules provide that "material will be examined solely for its conformance to ... ground rules, not for its potential to express criticism or cause embarrassment," 21 the evidence is mounting that so-called "security reviews" go well beyond any legitimate military needs.
Apart from direct orders to change the wording of articles, Pentagon officials also exercise control over information about the war by withholding approval until material is no longer newsworthy. Scripps-Howard reporter Peter Copeland asserts that military officials delayed his reporting about Saudi pilots for 53 hours. Military officials also referred a New York Times pool dispatch on reported "stealth" bomber attacks on Baghdad to "stealth" headquarters in Nevada for review. The material was not cleared until the next day. 25
When the ground offensive began on February 23, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced that the Pentagon's regular news briefings would be suspended. He justified the news blackout on the grounds that "every detail we offer would increase the likelihood that the military forces of Iraq could learn more about our operations." 26 When the briefings resumed 12 hours later, news organizations attributed the policy shift not to their protests, but to the apparent early success of the offensive. According to NBC News Senior Vice-President and Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, "We protested like crazy. But the military is not (releasing footage) because it is news; they are doing it because it is good news." 27
At the moment, the public does not seem to be troubled by restrictions on the press. A poll recently conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Times Mirror Center for People and the Press found that 78 percent of the public believes the military is "telling as much as it can." Given a choice between increasing military control over information or leaving it to news organizations, 57 percent favored the military. 28 A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 62% favor bombing a Baghdad hotel used as a command and control center even when reporters are staying there, if the reporters remain following a warning. (5% favored bombing without any warning.) 29
Shortly before the onset of the war, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to interview Arab-American individuals and organizational officials, ostensibly to gather information about possible terrorist activity in the United States. These interviews were widely criticized by Arab-American groups and civil rights and liberties organizations, including the Fund for Free Expression, which in a January 15 letter to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh argued that "such an approach presumes the disloyalty of millions of Arab-Americans and persons of Arab origin lawfully residing in the United States, and has a chilling effect on their rights to take part in the public debate over the appropriateness of U.S. actions in the Persian Gulf."
In a letter to the Washington Post defending his agency's contacts with Arab-Americans, F.B.I. Director William S. Sessions claimed that "the persons who were contacted are not regarded as targets or suspects. The contacts were voluntary, and the individuals were certainly not subjected to any form of interrogation, surveillance or investigation. Quite the opposite, we have turned to these individuals for assistance as we carry out our mandate of protecting this country from acts of terrorism. Although the initial contacts have been completed, it remains critical during the current situation that the F.B.I. continue to have dialogue with the Arab-American community." 30
Yet many Arab-Americans who been approached by F.B.I. agents to participate in such a "dialogue" have a sharply different view. New York Newsday reported the following incidents:
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee logged only 5 "hate" crimes against Arab-Americans in the first seven months of 1990, but 34 in the final months of last year, following Iraq's
invasion of Kuwait. In January, the group said, immediately before and after the start of the war, there were 58 reported crimes, more than in all of last year. 32
In addition to the F.B.I. program and private acts of violence and intimidation against Arab-Americans, there has been discriminatory action by businesses, such as Pan-American Airways' policy barring Iraqi nationals from its flights (a policy rescinded on February 22 following a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and a complaint lodged with the New York City Human Rights Commission), 33 and incidents of arrest and detention by government agencies based on no apparent reason other than ethnic origin -- a Jordanian couple held for over 12 hours by Nassau County, N.Y. police on a minor traffic offense, 34 an Iraqi merchant crewman imprisoned without charges by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 35
The Fund's January 28 report on freedom of expression and the war observed that "wars ... have in the past placed corollary strains on freedom of expression." One such strain is intolerance for dissent. In the words of New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, "From the beginning it has been difficult to publicly oppose this war, to express reservations or even forgo the exuberant display of national accord." 36
While public opinion seems to support the war, as manifested in the profusion of yellow ribbons and American flags, there is also an emerging darker side of intolerance, seen most starkly in the case of Marco Lokar. Lokar, a Seton Hall University basketball player, returned with his pregnant wife to their native Italy following death threats they received after it became known that he was the only member of the Seton Hall team not to wear an American flag on his uniform as a show of support for the troops in the Persian Gulf. In Seton Hall's game against St. John's University in Madison Square Garden on February 2, Lokar was booed by fans every time he touched the ball. 37
The one U.S. correspondent remaining in Baghdad, (there are at least twelve foreign news organizations there), Peter Arnett of CNN, has come under a barrage of criticism, led by Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who called him an Iraqi "sympathizer" for continuing to report from Iraq, despite the fact that all his transmissions from there carry a disclaimer that they are subject to Iraqi censorship. 38 When Arnett reported that U.S. planes bombed a "baby milk plant" in Baghdad, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater accused CNN of serving as a conduit for Iraqi "disinformation." 39 Reed Irvine of the conservative monitoring group Accuracy in Media said, "There's no way his reporting is helping America win this war." 40
There have been several instances of retaliation against journalists who have questioned the propriety of the war. After he wrote approvingly of an antiwar march, San Francisco Examiner associate editor and columnist Warren Hinckle was put on a partially paid three-month leave. "I take the position that I was censored," Hinckle says. 41 The editor of the Kutztown, Pennsylvania Patriot was fired after he wrote an editorial calling for peace. 42Village Voice national affairs editor Dan Bischoff was canceled as a guest on the CBS news "Nightwatch" program. The Pentagon refused to provide anyone to appear on the program if the Voice was to be represented among the participants. The program's producer recalls a Pentagon representative as objecting on the grounds that "if someone from The Village Voice is on, that raises the possibility that there will be a discussion of the merits" of the lawsuit filed by the Voice and other media organizations challenging the Pentagon press restrictions. 43 The Public Broadcasting System postponed a rebroadcast of a Bill Moyers "Frontline" program on the Iran-Contra affair because, according to an internal PBS memo, the program's raising of "serious questions about then-Vice President Bush's involvement and actions" make it "journalistically inappropriate" during the war against Iraq, because "the program could be viewed as overtly political by attempting to undermine the President's credibility." 44
While these actions by media organizations do not necessarily raise constitutional issues under the First Amendment, they contribute, along with other such incidents, to a climate in which freedom of expression about the war is chilled.
The war in the Persian Gulf has consequences for freedom of expression all over the world, as parties to the conflict and other nations manage the news and quash dissent to manufacture or maintain fragile public support. In addition to the Fund for Free Expression, other components of Human Rights Watch and related organizations are monitoring and reporting on free expression violations growing out of the war. Materials available from Human Rights Watch include:
This newsletter is a publication of The Fund for Free Expression, an independent organization created in 1975 to monitor and combat censorship around the world and in the United States. The Chair is Roland Algrant; Vice Chairs, Aryeh Neier, Sophie C. Silberberg and Robert Wedgeworth; Executive Director, Gara LaMarche; Associate, Lydia Lobenthal. The members are Alice Arlen, Robert L. Bernstein, Tom A. Bernstein, Hortense Calisher, Geoffrey Cowan, Dorothy Cullman, Patricia Derian, Adrian DeWind, Irene Diamond, E.L. Doctorow, Norman Dorsen, Theodor S. Geisel, Jack Greenberg, Vartan Gregorian, S. Miller Harris, Alice H. Henkin, Pam Hill, Joseph Hofheimer, Lawrence Hughes, Anne M. Johnson, Mark Kaplan, Stephen Kass, William Koshland, Jeri Laber, Anthony Lewis, William Loverd, Wendy Luers, John Macrae, III, Michael Massing, Nancy Meiselas, Arthur Miller, The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Jr., Toni Morrison, Peter Osnos, Bruce Rabb, Geoffrey Cobb Ryan, John G. Ryden, Steven R. Shapiro, Jerome Shestack, Nadine Strossen, Rose Styron, Hector Timerman, Marietta Tree, John Updike, Luisa Valenzuela, Nicholas A. Veliotes, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Gregory Wallance and Roger Wilkins.
The Fund for Free Expression is a component of Human Rights Watch, which also includes Africa Watch, Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Helsinki Watch, Middle East Watch, and special projects on Prisoners' Rights and Women's Rights. The Chair is Robert L. Bernstein and the Vice Chair is Adrian W. DeWind. Aryeh Neier is Executive Director; Kenneth Roth, Deputy Director; Holly J. Burkhalter, Washington Director; Susan Osnos, Press Director.
1 "Pentagon Defends Coverage Rules, While Admitting to Some Delays," Richard L. Berke, The New York Times, February 21, 1991.
2 "Correspondents Protest Pool System," R.W. Apple, Jr., The New York Times, February 12, 1991.
4 "Battle Lines: Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on the Military and the Media," Priority Press Publications, 1985.
5 Report of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Media-Military Relations Panel (Sidle Panel), August 23, 1984.
6 "Journalists Say `Pools' Don't Work," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 11, 1991.
7 Times of London, Christopher Walker, February 8, 1991.
8 "Correspondents Protest Pool System," R. W. Apple, Jr., The New York Times, February 12, 1991.
9 Kurtz, February 11, 1991.
10 "Jumping Out of the Pool," Newsweek, February 18, 1991.
11 "Marching Orders for the Media," Robert Fisk, The Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1991.
14 Kurtz, February 11, 1991.
15 "Journalists Threaten to Defy Restrictions," Alice Rawathorn, Financial Times, February 19, 1991.
16 "Lawsuit Threatened," The Washington Post, February 2, 1991.
17 "Desert Shielded," Debbie Nathan, The Texas Observer, January 11, 1991.
18 "The Briefers and the Press: Combatants on This Side of the Line," Thomas W. Lippman, The Washington Post, February 21, 1991.
19 "CBS Reporter Chafed at Restrictions," David Mills, The Washington Post, January 26, 1991; "CBS News Crew Held in Baghdad," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 16, 1991.
20 "Dover Closings Challenged," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 23, 1991.
21 "Guidelines for News Media," U.S. Department of Defense, January 14, 1991.
22 "Pentagon's Strategy for the Press: Good News or No News," James LeMoyne, The New York Times, February 17, 1991.
23 "Correspondents Chafe Over Curbs on News," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, January 26, 1991.
26 "Pentagon Declares Truce with Media," Rita Ciolli, New York Newsday, February 25, 1991.
27 "Ground War puts TV in a Minefield," Brian Donlon, USA Today, February 25, 1991.
28 "Poll Backs Control of News," Alex S. Jones, The New York Times, January 31, 1991.
29 "The Gulf Between Media and Military," Henry Allen, The Washington Post, February 21, 1991.
30 "Fighting Terrorism and Guarding Rights," Letters to the Editor, The Washington Post, February 14, 1991.
31 "F.B.I. Grills N.Y. Arab-Americans," Emily Sachar, New York Newsday, January 29, 1991; "Anti-Arab Hate Crimes Up in U.S.," Stephanie Saul, New York Newsday, February 7, 1991.
32 Newsday , Saul, February 7, 1991.
33 "Pan Am Agrees to End Ban on Iraqi Nationals," Elaine Rivera, New York Newsday, February 23, 1991.
34 "Bashing Arabs to Silence Debate," Sheryl McCarthy, New York Newsday, February 6, 1991.
35 "Iraqi Crewman Taken from Cargo Ship in Baltimore by INS, Jailed," David Conn, The Baltimore Sun, January 26, 1991.
36 "Reservations Not Accepted," Anna Quindlen, The New York Times, February 24, 1991.
37 "College Player Quits, Citing Threats Over Flag," Al Harvin, The New York Times, February 14, 1991.
38 "Senator Simpson Calls Arnett `Sympathizer,'" Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 8, 1991.
39 "White House Criticizes CNN Report," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, January 24, 1991.
40 "Media Dilemma: Breaking News, Iraqi Control," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 14, 1991.
41 "Citizen Hearst vs. Citizen Hinckle," Press Clips, Doug Ireland, The Village Voice, February 19, 1991.
42 Quindlen, February 24, 1991.
43 "CBS Loses its Voice," Media Blitz, James Ledbetter, The Village Voice, February 26, 1991.
44 "PBS Cancels `Frontline' Repeat," Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, February 19, 1991.