United States

War and the threat of war were in the forefront of issues related to press freedom in the United States since IAPA’s March meeting in the Dominican Republic. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in January issued a subpoena to former Washington Post reporter Jonathan Randal to testify about the accuracy of an interview he conducted in 1993 with a former Bosnian Serb leader who is now on trial for war crimes. The subpoena was issued after Randal refused to comply with an earlier summons. On trial is former Deputy Prime Minister Radoslav Brdjanin, who was quoted by Randal as saying he wanted a peaceful “exodus” of the non-Serb population. Randal moved to quash the subpoena, and asked the Tribunal to decide for the first time whether journalists should be afforded a qualified privilege not to testify about their news gathering, based on the international public interest in the free flow of information to war correspondents. The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, maintained that while there may be a limited right for journalists not to reveal their sources, it did not apply in Randal’s case because the information sought was already published and Randal had earlier given a statement to investigators. The trial chamber sided with the prosecution and Randal appealed. He was joined in October by more than 30 news organizations which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in which they argued that any attempt to force testimony from war correspondents would make them seem to be agents of the justice system and therefore endanger their lives. That would in turn hamper their ability to cover the fighting. The immediate case involving Randal may soon be moot – prosecutors are now saying his testimony may not be necessary. But it remains uncertain whether the Tribunal will rule on the privilege issue for reporters anyway, even if the subpoena is withdrawn. No decision is expected for at least a month. Even if the court chooses not to rule, the threat from the many emerging new international tribunals to force testimony from correspondents of all nationalities remains. Meanwhile, the United States has been holding an assistant cameraman from the Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera for nearly 10 months without charges at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Sami Al-Haj has been held along with some 600 suspected members of al-Qaeda since shortly after his arrest December 15 in Afghanistan. Al-Jazeera has sought unsuccessfully through diplomatic channels to obtain his release, or even get much information on his case. The network said that a complication in the case is that Al-Haj, a Sudanese who had only been working for the station for about two months, had lost his passport in 2000 and that it may have been fraudulently used by other people. The Bush Administration has maintained that the captives from the Afghan war have limited rights and that their isolation, interrogation and detention is necessary as part of the war against terrorism. The detention of Al-Haj was only made public after he wrote a letter to his wife. Human rights and press freedom groups such as the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists have protested to the U.S. government that without greater public information, it is impossible to know whether Al-Haj has been rightly or wrongly jailed. The Bush Administration has also taken a stronger tack restricting some freedoms inside the United States itself. News organizations have been filing freedom of information requests and battling in court to get more information about the more than 200 people being held as material witnesses or criminal suspects in relation to terrorism. Most are being held technically on immigration violations. All have access to lawyers, but the government has declined to publicly release any of their names, or those of the some 1,200 people who have been detained for various lengths of time since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last year. In September, the Administration said that hearings in the immigration cases of “special interest” would be held in secret. Appeals have led to conflicting decisions. The Federal Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that the government could not issue a blanket edict closing the doors to the immigration hearings. The secrecy would have to be requested on a case by case basis. The Federal Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, however, upheld the blanket secrecy. The Supreme Court normally intervenes in cases such as this in which two appeals courts render contradictory decisions. The Administration, meanwhile, has rejected the freedom of information requests for the names of those detained. It argues that many of the detainees do not want it known that they are or were being questioned and that releasing their names would give al-Qaeda hints of what the government knows. In that same vein, the Administration in May authorized Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in terrorism cases to begin monitoring telephone conversations and Internet traffic, without requesting prior authorization from a judge. It is the most radical change in FBI regulations since the 1970s. Behind all these measures are justifications by the Administration that they are necessary to protect the citizenry from terrorism. The government maintains that civil and individual rights will remain strong. Critics respond that the government is over-reacting. In the case of the withheld names, for example, the critics argue that Al Qaeda would know by now if any of its operatives were missing and that enough time has passed for the government to get the information it needs, without pressing charges. Many in the press have been watching carefully to make sure that in the balance between freedom and security, the understandable need for security does not take on unjustified weight. In a separate matter, Publisher David Carson and Editor Edward Powers Jr. of The New Observer, a free monthly tabloid newspaper in Kansas, were convicted by a jury in July of misdemeanor criminal libel after writing last year during mayoral elections that various senior officials in Wyandotte County did not live in the county, as required by law. Among the named officials were Mayor Carol Marinovich, a district court judge and her husband Ernest Johnson, and District Attorney Nick Tomasic. The conviction carries a sentence in Kansas of up to one year in jail. The editor and publisher of The New Observer plan to appeal. Criminal libel laws have been abolished in most states. A federal appeals court panel found in September that the use of hidden cameras by the ABC television network in an investigation of medical laboratory errors was not an invasion of privacy under the law in Arizona, where the cameras were used. The court panel upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against ABC by one of the subjects of that investigation. The court said that the public importance of the story outweighed any privacy interests of the lab and its employees. The court also said that corporations, unlike individuals, cannot make legal claims for invasion of privacy.