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By Stephen Collins '74
Unprecedented threats to American civil liberties and encouragement to repressive regimes around the world that want to crack down on independent media are two consequences of America's war on terror, according to journalists who discussed "The Perils of Wartime Reporting" at this year's Lovejoy Convocation November 13.
After the 2002 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award was presented posthumously to Daniel Pearl, four journalists spoke in Lorimer Chapel. Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah recounted experiences covering U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan; executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Ann Cooper talked about dangers faced by journalists around the world; Anthony Lewis H'83, retired New York Times columnist, warned of unprecedented abrogation of American civil liberties; and David Broder H'90 described news gathering in Washington as the country seemed headed toward war against Iraq.
Lewis, a constitutional and legal scholar, said, "If the administration has its way legally, anyone in this room, any American citizen anywhere, could be picked up and detained indefinitely in a Navy brig or prison, barred from seeing a lawyer, not subject to indictment or trial but just detained indefinitely. How? Simply by the president designating that person an 'enemy combatant.'"
He described the case of Jose Padilla, "a kid from Chicago" who converted to Islam, went to Pakistan and on his return was arrested at O'Hare Airport as "a material witness" to an unspecified act of or plan for terrorism. Two days before a hearing, President George W. Bush designated Padilla an enemy combatant, which allowed him to be put in a military prison, "unable to communicate with a lawyer, unable to lodge any kind of protest, to speak to anybody," Lewis said.
"It's a claim of presidential power, I think beyond anything that I've known in my life, over individuals," Lewis said. He described historical precedents, including the Pentagon Papers and the case of a German war bride who was detained without charges, and said, "My general view is that security assertions by the government almost inevitably, when they do get challenged, when they are examined in court, prove to be threadbare."
"Lovejoy's lesson to us is the duty of the press to speak out despite popular disapproval, to speak out most of all against injustice," Lewis said. "I think that duty is pressing domestically in the wake of September 11. It is up to us in the press to keep account of what the government has done and is doing to civil liberties in this country in the name of fighting terrorism."
Cooper warned that the U.S. war on terrorism, with its rhetoric and restrictions on the media, has made life worse for journalists around the world. In Zimbabwe, for example, journalists have been labeled as terrorists. "When these limitations are put on American journalists, by the U.S. military for example during the conflict in Afghanistan, we believe they set a terrible precedent. They are watched by other leaders, who use them as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom in their own countries."
Broder talked about the Bush administration's "intense desire" to control the information and messages that Americans receive from their government. "It's a highly organized and a highly centralized effort to channel information in ways that serve the policy purposes and, incidentally, the political purposes of the administration," he said. "This particular government is not unique in any respect in that regard. But they are perhaps more efficient about enforcing it than some of the other administrations, notably the Clinton administration, which leaked all over the place."
In the run-up to a possible war with Iraq, though, discipline in the administration's effort to control information started to break down, Broder said. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly challenged the direction that the vice president and secretary of defense were steering the administration, and the uniformed military, chafing at restrictions and policy decisions, began leaking information to air dissenting views about how the war was being planned, Broder said.
Ahmed-Ullah gave a view from the conflict zone, talking about her experience and the risks she encountered as one of the first Western journalists into Kandahar. "After we first entered Kandahar, I walked through the remains of Mullah Omar's home, going through his cabinets, desk drawers, bedroom dressers, walking into rubble of bombed out remains. There could have easily been undetonated devices there. These were places that could easily have been booby-trapped for stupid journalists like me," she said. She described chasing rumors of Al-Qaeda in remote villages and pushing across dangerous terrain.
"People talk of the fog of war, and in this war the fog was really heavy," she said.
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