FEMA: a Disaster for freedom of the press

[an action alert from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting]

The Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibits journalists from having unsupervised interviews with Hurricane Katrina victims who have been relocated to FEMA trailer parks, according to a report in the Baton Rouge Advocate (7/15/06).

“If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview,” FEMA spokesperson Rachel Rodi is quoted in the article. “That’s just a policy.”

The Advocate report, by reporter Sandy Davis, describes two separate attempts to talk to people displaced by Katrina that were halted by the intervention of a FEMA security guard. In the first incident, in a Morgan City, Louisiana camp, an interview was interrupted by a guard who claimed that residents of the camp are “not allowed” to talk to the media.

Dekotha Devall, whose New Orleans home was destroyed by the storm, was in her FEMA-provided trailer telling the Advocate reporter of the hardships of life in the camp when a security guard knocked on the door.

“You are not allowed to be here,” the guard is quoted as telling the reporter. “Get out right now.” The guard reportedly called police to force the journalist to leave the camp, and even prevented the reporter from giving the interview subject a business card. “You will not give her a business card,” the guard said. “She’s not allowed to have that.”

Later, at another FEMA camp in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, the reporter attempted to talk to camp resident Pansy Ardeneaux through a chain link fence when the same guard halted the interview. “You are not allowed to talk to these people,” the guard told Ardeneaux. “Return to your trailer now.” The reporter said she and an accompanying photographer were “ordered...not to talk to anyone or take pictures.”

Earlier, an interview with displaced Katrina victims by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! (4/24/06) was halted by FEMA security guards. Tape-recording the accounts of residents of the FEMA-run Renaissance Village camp outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Goodman was approached by FEMA-hired security guards from Corporate Security Solutions who told her to “turn it off.” When Goodman explained that the resident had asked to be interviewed, she was told, “He can't. That’s not his privilege.”

At first, the resident talking to Goodman was told by the guard, “You can go get interviewed as long as it’s off post.” But when the resident offered to continue the interview outside the camp, the guard said, “Yes, you can be interviewed... if they had a FEMA representative with them, but since they don’t and do not have an appointment....” Interviews are allowed to proceed, the guard noted, when “they have the FEMA public relations officer with them.”

In concluding the segment on her visit to the camp, Goodman reported, “As we drove off of Renaissance Village, we were chased by the guards in golf carts, who said they would be taking down our license plate and that we couldn't return.”

Restrictions on the right of citizens to speak freely to the press without government supervision are a clear violation of the 1st Amendment. “They cannot deny media access,” Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Advocate, saying that FEMA’s restrictions were “clearly unconstitutional … and definitely not legal.” Referring to the requirement that interview subjects have a FEMA escort, Leslie said, “That’s a standard for a prison, not a relief park and a temporary shelter.”

Timothy Matte, the mayor of Morgan City, expressed surprise that FEMA was enforcing limits on the free speech of disaster victims. “You would think the people would have the same freedom there as everyone else has,” he said.

ACTION: FEMA’s website urges citizens to report “allegations of civil liberties or civil rights abuses” to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, who is Richard L. Skinner.

CONTACT:
Inspector General Richard L. Skinner
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
E-mail: DHSOIGHOTLINE@dhs.gov

article originally published at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2924.

FEMA Responds on Press Access to Trailer Parks

followup from FAIR:

In a July 22 letter to the Baton Rouge Advocate, a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency responded to an Advocate report (7/15/06) that the government agency was severely limiting access to Hurricane Katrina survivors living in FEMA trailer parks.

But the letter from James Stark, director of FEMA's Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office, avoided dealing with the specific limits on access described by Advocate reporter Sandy Davis. Instead, Stark simply stated that FEMA "policies do not restrict any FEMA group site resident from speaking to members of the media. Likewise, there is no policy that requires a FEMA representative to be present when a resident talks with the media."

Stark also pointed out that FEMA's privacy "safeguards" (unspecified by Stark) are "intended to protect an individual's right to privacy as he or she recovers from personal losses caused by Katrina."

It seems difficult to square Stark's claim about FEMA's policy with the statement by FEMA spokesperson Rachel Rodi quoted in the Advocate: "If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview....That's just a policy." How likely is it that a FEMA spokesperson is misinformed about FEMA's policies on FEMA spokespersons?

But it is almost beside the point whether Katrina victims' access to the press is being restricted by official policy or unofficial practice. The Advocate piece provided two specific examples of residents of FEMA camps being told by FEMA security guards that they were "not allowed" to talk to media. (Another example, recorded on audio tape, was broadcast by Democracy Now!—4/24/06.) Stark’s letter simply ignores those incidents, providing neither an apology nor an explanation for these civil liberties violations. Thus FAIR repeats its call for an investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

CONTACT:
Inspector General Richard L. Skinner
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
E-mail: DHSOIGHOTLINE@dhs.gov

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey