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Is the Government Trying to Stem the Tide of Images From New Orleans by Threatening Journalists?

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Journalists covering New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina report that militarization in and around the city has hindered their work and threatened their physical safety. We hear from two journalists who were reporting in New Orleans recently. [includes rush transcript]

The journalists who have been covering Hurricane Katrina have literally been risking their lives for the last week. Reporters have been stationed in and around New Orleans since the Hurricane hit and have tirelessly reported on the devastation to the city. Some journalists have expressed enormous outrage at government officials for their slow response. A few television reporters openly broke down on air as they report the horrific conditions and the desperation of victims. Reporters have witnessed the militarization of the city and are starting to feel the effects of the government crack-down on information gathering. FEMA is now rejecting requests by journalists to accompany rescue boats searching for storm victims. In addition, journalists are being asked not to photograph any dead bodies in the region. NBC News Anchor Brian Williams reported on his blog, that police officers had been seen aiming their weapons at members of the media. And a blogger named Bob Brigham wrote a widely read dispatch that the National Guard in Jefferson County are under orders to turn all journalists away. Brigham writes: “Bush is now censoring all reporting from New Orleans, Louisiana. The First Amendment sank with the city.”

Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders issued a warning about police violence against journalists working in New Orleans. They highlighted two cases — in one case police detained a Times-Picayune photographer and smashed his equipment to the ground after he was seen covering a shoot-out with police. In the second case, a photographer from the Toronto Star was detained by police and his photos taken from him when police realized that he had snapped photos of a clash between them and citizens who the police claimed were looters.

  • Tim Harper, reporter with the Toronto Star
  • Jacquie Soohen, Independent film maker with Big Noise films. Among her films–“Zapitista” and “Fourth World War,” where she traversed the globe —- from South Africa to South Korea, from Argentina to Iraq— documenting anti corporate globalization struggles.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked about the crackdown yesterday.

REPORTER: There are a couple of issues that are developing that are of concerns to journalists down in Louisiana and Mississippi. One of them is FEMA refusing to take reporters and photographers when they’re going to recover the bodies, ostensibly because they don’t want pictures of them on the news, but this also is at the same time as reporters are discovering that access is being barred to them to places — by the military to places where they previously went. Brian Williams’ own blog reports an instance of a police officer turning a gun on reporters.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Sorry, I haven’t blogged today, so I haven’t seen some of those reports.

REPORTER: Check it out. He has three instances in there of the military being hostile to journalists.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I know that the military and I think even Coast Guard has taken steps to try to make sure reporters can go along on some of the efforts that — the humanitarian assistance efforts and search and rescue efforts. That was my understanding when we were there on Friday, visiting with a lot of the Coast Guard people that had been working around the clock on search and rescue operations.

Your first statement that you made, I think you need to look further into that, because I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. I saw some reports to that effect, and my understanding is it was not an accurate characterization. Certainly, I think we all want to keep in mind the sensitivities that will arise when we begin more or larger undertaking of recovering bodies that will be found. As I said, it’s going to be an ugly situation when those floodwaters ultimately recede and we go in and start recovering larger numbers of bodies of people who have lost their lives. Those are people who had families and friends, and we hope everybody will show the dignity and proper dignity and respect, but in terms of the characterization that you made, I don’t think that’s accurate.

REPORTER: We have a quote from FEMA about it, saying “the recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect, and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.” And yet, the bodies themselves, tragically, are a very large part of the story, and to bar any visual depiction of it —

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I’m not sure that that’s the full statement.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan speaking on Thursday, being questioned by reporters at the White House. Joining us in our D.C. studio is Tim Harper, a reporter with the Toronto Star. He was with his photographer, Lucas Oleniuk, the photographer from the Toronto Star whose photos were taken from him by police. And here with us in New York is Jacquie Soohen. She just flew in last night, an independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films. And we’ll talk with her about what happened to her in a minute, but first we go to Tim Harper in Washington. Explain when you were in New Orleans with your photographer and what happened.

TIM HARPER: Sure. It was a week ago Thursday. It was a day that things were quite clearly out of control. It was before any federal troops had come in to try to take control of the situation. New Orleans authorities were clearly way over their head at that point, and looting had been breaking out over the past 24 hours everywhere.

We drove, Lucas Oleniuk and I drove into the city. We were a couple of blocks away from the Convention Center, when he noticed on the left what looked to be perhaps the start of a shootout. We noticed a New Orleans ETF, emergency task force officer crouching behind his car with his gun drawn. Lucas jumped out of the car. As soon as he did, we heard a quick pop, pop, pop, and gunfire was coming from an apartment block, and being returned by the police.

I was told in no uncertain terms at gunpoint to get the hell out of the area, and I complied as best I could. But Lucas was caught essentially in the gunfire because New Orleans police pulled up behind him and started shooting over his shoulder. So during the 15-minute or so standoff that ensued, he was taking pictures alongside New Orleans officers as they were caught in the standoff. Now, subsequently, they did get two suspects out of the apartment block where this incident was happening, and while Lucas was shooting, they administered a rather fierce beating on these two guys. And I guess that was the problem.

As soon as they realized that the beating of the suspects was being captured on film, one officer tried to rip the camera off his shoulder. His press tag was ripped off. Eventually, they got one camera and started messing with the camera trying to get the pictures out. Fearful that they were going to ruin his camera, he showed them how to get the images out. His second camera was ripped from his shoulder at that time, and when he asked whether he could get his images back, he was threatened with having his neck broken, had guns pointed at him.

I came back to try to help him. I had guns pointed at me. I was told to turn my car around, stop or I’ll shoot. I had a shotgun pointed at the windshield. So the bottom line is about 350 images that Lucas Oleniuk took will never be seen, and I thought almost equally as important, ripping off his press tag at that point and leaving him out any press accreditation driving around in the city in that situation made him incredibly vulnerable. It was a very dangerous situation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, in other words, they did not initially try to stop his shooting of photographs of the shootout. It was only when —

TIM HARPER: Not during the shootout, no.

AMY GOODMAN: — they started to beat the prisoners that they had grabbed that they became concerned?

TIM HARPER: Yeah. No, it’s not clear at that point whether they allowed him to keep taking the pictures, because obviously, they were worried about sniper fire coming from the apartment, and they didn’t want to do anything to endanger themselves. But there was — nobody tried to intervene. He actually at one point ran across the street from — he had taken shelter behind a light standard, and then while the shooting was going on, ran across about a quarter block length to get behind a cruiser for better protection, beside another officer shooting, so, no, there was no move to stop him from taking pictures while they were involved in the shootout.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Harper is a reporter with the Toronto Star. His photographer, Lucas Oleniuk with the Toronto Star had his film taken. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Jacquie Soohen to talk about her experience as she was filming, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Tim Harper, of the Toronto Star, telling us what happened when he was covering New Orleans, and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise films whose done a number of films around the world, spent a good deal of time in Iraq covering the invasion and occupation and the time before. Jacquie, you just flew in late last night from New Orleans. Tell us about your experience there.

JACQUIE SOOHEN: Well, the experience with the police was two days ago. We were filming in the Ninth Ward, which is one of the more dangerous areas, supposedly, but also one of the hardest hit areas, and one of the areas where a lot of rescue operations haven’t gone into, especially the Lower Ninth Ward. And we were just on the edge of that and we were filming with another photographer and a journalist. Curfew was approaching, but it wasn’t quite there yet, and we had gone about the city at the same time of night, other times. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, literally, there were four SUVs and a Humvee pulled up, and without any warning, D.E.A., Border Patrol, Louisiana Police Department and National Guard forces came out with their guns raised, pointed at our heads, and said, “Looters will be shot!” And we just began yelling as fast as we could, “We’re press! We’re press! We’re press!” And I had my camera in my hand while that was going on. And they kept yelling at us, “Looters will be shot!” for — this went on for a little while.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you with a resident of the Ninth Ward?

JACQUIE SOOHEN: We were with a resident of the Ninth Ward, who was also okay. We were all okay in the end. We talked them down. We were able to tell them we would just leave as quickly as possible, they also wanted to make sure that the resident of the Ninth Ward left. He was planning on staying, but they wanted to make sure that he left with us.

And I think what we did was we experienced more than anything, I mean, martial law as it was being enacted upon the city and the fear that it was causing in all of the residents, and the very next day, there were — I got two more phone calls from residents who were inside, who had suddenly decided to leave because they said they were being harassed and intimidated by the police, being searched on street corners, having guns pointed at them.

AMY GOODMAN: To say the least, you have been in a lot of dangerous situations. How did this rate in — you know, how afraid were you?

JACQUIE SOOHEN: I have to say that both me and the other journalist who was with me, both of us who have covered the Iraq war, this was one of the more frightening situations, because they really — I really had the impression that they were willing to shoot anybody and anything. They were incredibly energized, incredibly amped up, and also that that whole area was very lawless, as was said, but the police had a fear and they were willing to — really willing to intimidate anybody who was there.

What was eerie was also, though, it looked a lot like Iraq. I mean, the only times that we did see National Guard, they were patrolling the streets in the same way in the Ninth Ward, whereas in downtown area, they were perhaps more friendly, talking to people, etc. In that area of the city, it very much looked like an occupied city. They were walking in formation. They had their guns out and pointed at the houses. So it was kind of — it was very frightening to see that in our country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jacquie, and I’d like to ask Tim Harper also, this whole issue of lawlessness and looting and attacks has gotten a lot of attention in the past few days. Many African American leaders claiming that it has been overblown; others saying no; and even the officials in New Orleans not quite being united. We’ve heard, on the one hand, that the allegations of rapes and murders that occurred in the Superdome have been discounted, and yet the Mayor of New Orleans yesterday said, admitted that, yes, some had occurred. So, I mean, what did you see on the ground in terms of this whole issue of the extent of the looting and the lawlessness?

JACQUIE SOOHEN: I saw very little looting in the areas I was in, to be honest. In the Ninth Ward, which I was surprised — I had thought I would see — in fact, the resident we went with expected to find his house looted, and he came back and everything was perfectly intact in there, and his neighborhood similarly hadn’t been looted at all. It was very much the community was staying there. So, I think perhaps it depends on block to block. The things that seem to be looted were the shopping centers downtown and that sort of a thing. More than anything, talking to other residents, it seems like a lot of these things are being used as scare tactics amongst the residents themselves.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Tim Harper, what did you see in terms of actual looting or lawlessness, and credible reports that you received?

TIM HARPER: Well, we witnessed looting on a number of occasions, and in fact we witnessed widely divergent responses to it. One morning, driving into the city in Kenner, which is the district not far from the airport, Lucas again, we witnessed and we shot an armed takedown of a looter in a convenience store who was handcuffed at gunpoint and laid face down on the asphalt.

But then the next day, for example, driving along Magazine getting into New Orleans, a giant Whole Foods had just been looted. And people were just pushing grocery carts down the street filled with water and non-perishables, and the police had drove by, just moved over into the left lane so as not to impede their progress and just let them head off wherever they were heading with it. I think at that point, the realization, of course, had kicked in that people were looting in order to survive and to help others survive, and the police didn’t seem to be impeding their progress.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if what we’re seeing in New Orleans is what we rarely see in this modern age of journalism, certainly when it comes to Iraq, and that is unembedded reporting. There were no troops there to embed with. Now, you have the President coming late to this saying that bodies are not to be filmed. Of course, how they impose that rule in Iraq, you are not supposed to see body bags or, you know, flag-draped coffins. But right now, what the American people have seen on their TV screens is reporters at the bull’s eye, which is what we rarely see, at the target end, because there are no troops that they are with. They’re there with the victims. They’re crying. They’re not in air-conditioned spaces. They’re subjected to the same horrendous conditions in New Orleans, and they’re experiencing the victims. Jacquie, or Tim, I’ll start with you, do you have any view on that, that idea of us seeing the power of what it means to see these images and the administration now very much trying to catch up and stop this from coming out?

TIM HARPER: Well, I just wanted to make one point, Amy. Somebody mentioned to me yesterday that just as the Pentagon had embedded reporters with soldiers during the Iraq invasion, so as inevitably your sentiments mesh with the soldiers’ — they’re there to help you and protect you — hundreds of reporters in the last ten days or so have been embedded with the poverty-stricken people of New Orleans. And I think there’s a possibility that this is changing some views, because when you’re embedded with people, and in fact when I say embedded, I mean it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket in New Orleans, everybody was the same. There was nothing to buy. There was — the playing field was leveled.

And when you are embedded with people suffering like that, you tend to be sympathetic to their point of view. You tend to wonder where is the help? You tend to wonder why these people have been left behind, and you identify with them. And I’m wondering whether in this country and in the next little while there might be a more — a closer look at how so many people in New Orleans, for example, and Mississippi, where we were, are living in abject poverty. How did they fall under the radar? Maybe it’s time to take a look at this again, and maybe some views could be changed because of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacquie Soohen, your final comment?

JACQUIE SOOHEN: I definitely agree that from every — from the victims to the people who were able to survive the hurricane, people are very critical of how this is dealt with, and that has to do a lot with the power of the stories that are getting out.

AMY GOODMAN: Amazing to see across the political spectrum, when you see these images, unfiltered, from conservative Republicans to progressives, people denouncing what has happened. You can only wonder if we had seen these same images when it came to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, if people would have the same response. I want to thank you so much, Tim Harper, reporter with the Toronto Star, for joining us in Washington, D.C., and Jacquie Soohen, independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films here in New York. Both just back from covering New Orleans.

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