Column: Censorship in a Time of War

Posted 11:25 a.m. May 10

by Melissa Kronfeld
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Two weeks ago, while I was getting my hourly dosage of CNN, a particular story caught my attention, through the bombardment of images, facts and CNN news updates. A teenage boy in Alabama was asked to return home after he refused to take off his “offensive” t-shirt. The boy’s shirt read “INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST” and bared a smiling President George W. Bush. But what of that cherished and time-honored tradition that so characterizes democracy in the modern age – the freedom of speech? Is it not enshrined as a right in our very First Amendment? Well, yes, in fact it is.

But despite this right, America has indeed suffered from the disease of censorship during times of war. As early as World War I censorship was a tool of warfare against the American people. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order that actually allowed the United States Navy to censor international radio and telegraph messages, even those of the press transmitting news to partner papers in the states. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the military was allowed to control all amateur and commercial radio communications.

The truly most disparaging moment of the war was the passing of the Espionage Act in 1917. With this Act, the government was able to slap a fine of $10,000 and 20 years of prison for interference with recruiting troops or refusal to perform military duty. Within a few months over 900 people were imprisoned under the Espionage Act.

With the passing of the Sedition Act in 1918, it became a crime to criticize in speeches or in writing the government, the Constitution, the flag, or the uniform of the men in service. Under the two laws combined, 1,500 people were imprisoned for acts of nonviolent protest and parading with banners that decried the war. And at least 75 newspapers lost their mailing privileges and were pressured to change their editorial attitude. President Wilson even created a Committee on Public Information that fashioned a “voluntary censorship code” with journalists if they wanted to “stay in the loop.” The Committee basically released the news to over 6,000 papers across the nation daily.

During World War II President Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually established, in 1941, an Office of Censorship to censor all communications between the U.S. and foreign countries and to prevent news organizations from publishing information that, in the opinion of the government, would aid the Axis’ cause. A year later the establishment of the Office of War Information regulated the flow of traffic within the government and to the news organizations. They prohibited any pictures of dead Americans for the first two years of the war, but even when the ban was lifted, graphic photographs continued to be censored.

In Vietnam, the Joint United States Public Affairs Office provided the press with their information, the press briefings came to be known as the “5 O’clock Follies.” The press and the military officials established a silent honorary system in which the reporters would receive the information about a battle, but would not report anything about it until the battle had begun.

During the Gulf War, censorship was blatantly accepted by radio, photography, print and television. All news reports were submitted to a “security review” before being released. A press pool was established in which one reporter would accompany soldiers to combat areas and report back to the group of reporters to ensure that the stories remain the same and limited in interpretation. Almost two-dozen journalists were detained by the military for not following proper “pool” procedure.

Even our very own war on terrorism has been censored. The military has significantly limited the access of the press to battle locations and has refused to allow journalists to interview soldiers after returning from missions while stationed in Afghanistan. The majority of the information journalists receive comes directly from the Secretary of Defense himself. The government has bought exclusive rights for the commercial satellite imagery of Afghanistan, blocking the media from using any space images at all. The FBI has actually ordered that the unedited video of the brutal murder execution of Daniel Pearl be no longer disseminated.

But these acts alone do not even compare to the type of censorship now allowable through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The government is granted nine exemptions to the guarantee that Americans may gain access to information or records held by federal agencies. During wartime, this allows a broadening of the censorship horizons to unthinkable lengths. If that was not enough, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOI) makes the FOIA “electronic.” This act is basically a means by which the government can more easily sift through our digital worlds.

If that doesn’t frighten you enough, I’ll tell you what should. This history of censorship has begun to take its toll and before our very eyes media organizations, even my very own CNN, have become self-censoring machines of the state, calling upon their peers to express “patriotic information” only. That is after Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told Americans that they “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

John MacArthur, in an interview with MediaChannel, stated, “In terms of fighting for the right to cover the war on behalf of the American people, it is finished. The battle was lost in the Gulf War and the press is in a hopeless position. I am not even sure they want to cover it, there isn’t even the spirit any more that was in Vietnam, of skepticism, and the sense that the patriotic thing to do is to tell the American people the truth and to try to be as impartial as possible and not to be the cats paw of the government.”

If we lose out media organization, how different will our newspaper be from the Soviet state tool Pravda? I’m not requesting Mr. Rumsfeld to share with me our defense strategies or satellite imagery. I’m merely requesting that we are cautious not to loose what it is we stand for and to make sure that the government is waging a war aboard, and not at home. Remember that even dissent fulfills an important role in democratic procedure – that the voice of the people is heard. Our ability to criticize is what makes us great, it is in fact what makes us free. And freedom is what we are fighting for, isn’t it?

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