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Censorship of news in wartime is still censorship

by Reporters Sans Frontieres Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001 at 12:43 PM

The US administration began hacking at the foundations of the first amendment while the dust was still settling on the ruins of the World Trade Center, writes Veronica Forwood, chairwoman of the British branch of Reporters Sans Frontieres

Monday October 15, 2001

The threat of censorship is never greater than in wartime when

governments exploit the pull of patriotism to suppress

unwelcome news.

The notion that "coded messages" to terrorists in Osama Bin

Laden's videos could be beamed into America by Arabic TV is

the latest specter raised by the US administration as it tussles

for the high ground in the propaganda war.

One might think that experienced journalists and their

hard-nosed bosses would be too streetwise to fall for that.

But no. In a bizarre and unprecedented move, the five major

networks - CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News Channel - have

rolled over and acquiesced to the call for censorship from the US

president's security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

They agreed to stop airing broadcasts live and to suppress any

that included calls to violence against Americans by Osama Bin

Laden or his al-Qaida cohorts on Arab satellite channel

al-Jazeera.

"We'll do whatever is our patriotic duty," said Australian-born

US citizen Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and News

International.

In fact, a certain hacking at the foundations of the first

amendment - which guarantees freedom of expression and

opinion - was embarked on by the US administration while the

dust was still settling on the ruins of the World Trade Center.

And doubts soon surfaced about the capacity of the US media

to hold steady and defend its objectivity and independence as

the shock waves from the September 11 attacks still echoed.

In a report just released into the reaction of the US media to the

attacks, press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres

(RSF) points out that several disquieting attempts at government

censorship have already been made, both inside and outside the

country and that self-censorship by the media was evident.

The clumsiest involved the US secretary of state Colin Powell's

urging of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa el-Thani,

to bring al-Jazeera to heel and stop "encouraging anti-American

feelings".

The Emir, the main shareholder in the Qatar-based station,

refused.

Tony Blair has perhaps showed more savvy than Powell by

giving interviews on the channel.

The US state department, which has a seat on the board of the

Congress-financed Voice of America, tried to ban an interview on

VoA with the spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed

Omar, scheduled for September 28.

The journalists protested - 150 of them signed a petition - and

they were backed in their struggle by the Washington Post. The

interview went ahead.

In incidents of corporate censorship two journalists have been

sacked from American newspapers so far, one in Texas and one

in Oregon, both for writing disparaging comments about George

Bush's behavior on September 11.

One said the president had "skedaddled" after the attacks and

another portrayed him as "hiding in a hole in Nebraska".

Not flattering words to use about a president who should have

been steadying his nation's nerves, but they constitute an

argument that can be defended in a democracy.

The truth is that any censorship of the news is unacceptable

and even more so now.

It is arrogant and hugely misguided to imagine that the jitters of

a people, whose government has taken upon itself to go to war

against a nebulous enemy, can be calmed by seeking to protect

them from the truth, however terrifying that truth may be.

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