Aug 1 2006

Reversing Course

FEMA Allows Katrina Victims To Speak to News Media

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had a policy prohibiting journalists from having unsupervised interviews with Hurricane Katrina victims who have been relocated to FEMA trailer parks—a policy that was reversed after complaints from the Baton Rouge Advocate and FAIR activists.

“If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview,” the Advocate (7/15/06) quoted FEMA spokesperson Rachel Rodi. “That’s just a policy.”

In the same article, Advocate reporter Sandy Davis described two separate interventions by FEMA security to halt interviews with people displaced by Katrina. 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 was 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.”

In the second incident, 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.”

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! (4/24/06) encountered similar problems when trying to interview displaced Katrina victims. 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.”

Citizens have a First Amendment right to speak to the press without government supervision. “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.

In a July 22 letter to the Advocate, James Stark, director of FEMA’s Louis-iana Transitional Recovery Office, asserted 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 avoided dealing with the specific limits on access described by Advocate reporter Sandy Davis. Instead, Stark claimed 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.”

But after sustained pressure from FAIR activists (Action Alert, 7/21/06; Activism Update, 7/25/06) and continued scrutiny from the Advocate (7/22/06; 7/23/06; 7/25/06), FEMA announced that it had reversed its policy limiting media access—tacitly acknowledging that such a policy existed.

“We’re responding to your criticism,” Stark told the Advocate (7/26/06). “You pointed out some very good points that we shouldn’t be trying to muzzle the press. . . . In no way will FEMA security nor FEMA public affairs stand in the way of media entering the trailer parks with valid credentials and interviewing whomever they like.”