A battle with truth

It appears our country has gone to war with the press. It has been alarming to witness the unprecedented attempts by the American military and other government officials these past weeks to restrict and deny the press the ability to report the real events of the war on terrorism. Journalists attempting to cover the bombings in Afghanistan have basically been locked out, confined to reporting the “news” based solely on official Pentagon news briefings. Two other disturbing events of the past weeks:

The Pentagon spent millions of dollars to buy up access to satellite images so as to prevent the western media from seeing the effects of bombing in Afghanistan. The images were taken from an advanced satellite launched in 1999 and owned by a non-governmental outfit called “Space Imaging.” The highly unusual October 11 purchase (which was reported widely in Europe but not in America) came as reports of heavy civilian casualties started coming in from the overnight bombing of terrorist training camps near Jalalabad.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he wants the Justice Department to give federal agencies “great leeway” to deny press requests for public information under the Freedom of Information Act during this war of undetermined length. Add to this the expanded powers government authorities now have to monitor telephone, e-mail and Internet traffic and you have an environment that chills press sources and harms journalists’ ability to do their jobs.

It is no secret to anybody who was paying attention that the press was improperly restricted during the Persian Gulf War where we saw inhibited news coverage and constant attempts by the military to manage the “message” of the war by controlling access to news content in the name of national security. After that war, objections were broadcast, editorials were written, a lawsuit was filed—all resulted, in 1992, in the Pentagon adopting fair guidelines for media coverage during wartime. But enforcement of these guidelines have been totally lacking so far in the new war.

Alarmed by these developments, a dozen mainstream news organizations—including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society for Professional Journalists and the National Newspaper Association—last week wrote a letter to the Bush administration and Pentagon officials asking that the press not be unduly restricted as this new war unfolds.

As sixth-grade children learn in civics class, the framers of the Constitution arranged for the press in this country to be free and independent for a reason. Americans expect to get their news from sources other than just the government. It’s fundamental to the very democracy our leaders say we have gone to war to protect.