By Jim Wright
WHEN U. S. ATTORNEY General Janet Reno recently visited the border town of Nogales, Arizona to "hear the concerns of community leaders," she and her staff barred the press from what should have been an open public forum.
When information to journalists is restricted by denying access, it amounts to censorship. According to University of Arizona journalism professor Jacklyn Sharkey, this practice is often ignored by the press even though it threatens the basic foundations of freedom of the press. In government circles the practice of using access censorship to restrict the flow of information is becoming more widespread as well as more common.
Reno's mission was, we are told by her public relations staff, to meet with Nogales area community leaders to listen to their concerns related to border law enforcement issues.
Reno's staff in the Phoenix office of the Department of Justice say they decided who would be invited to the meetings, which included Santa Cruz County Attorney Jan Smith Flores and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Flores says she didn't coordinate with the Department of Justice or the Border Patrol in setting up the meetings, she simply provided them with names. "They asked me for names of people to be invited to these meetings and I gave them a list of names. Names and numbers. That's all they asked for...that's all I did. Nothing more."
Julie Anbender, a public information official in Reno's Washington office, says there wasn't "any science" in the way the meetings were organized. "It was just decided to have Reno host several small 'community leadership' meetings so she could hear their concerns," said Anbender.
The original plan was to segregate the local community and business leaders into four groups. All of the meetings were advertised as closed to the press in a release prepared by the U.S. Border Patrol. The release announced a pool photographer and videographer would be allowed into the secret meeting, but reporters would be kept out.
Two officers from the Nogales Police Department positioned themselves in the hallway of the Americana Hotel and physically blocked reporters' entry to the meeting rooms. Only those whose names appeared on the official list were allowed to pass.
When asked why the press was barred, a Phoenix-based public relations official said, "We thought the people (attending the meetings) would be afraid of the flashbulbs and TV cameras."
And when Anbender was asked why the meetings had to be closed, she appeared somewhat flustered, responding, "So the Attorney General could hear the concerns of the community leaders." Then she added, "She (Reno) wants them to be able to talk freely."
"Talk freely?" an incredulous reporter responded. "Are you serious? The Attorney General of the United States of America believes people can't talk freely in front of the American press? How long has she held these beliefs?"
Stammering, Anbender said, "She...has never held those beliefs...She just wants to be able to...hear from the community."
"If that's the case," the reporter asked, "why were these meetings closed to all but a preselected few? If she wanted to hear from the community, why not have open forum?"
But the flack wanted to flee. "Can I call you when I get back to Washington?" she begged. "I can better answer your questions when I'm back at my office. I promise. I'll call as soon as I get back (to my office) tomorrow? Thanks. Bye." Twisting away from the conversation and diving into the small crowd in the lobby of the Americana, the flack swam off.
The feds are not subject to an open meetings law like they are in Arizona. So, technically neither Reno or her staff violated the law, said Sharkey, who adds, "Clearly, they violated the spirit of the law."
Rebbeca Daugherty an attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agrees with Sharkey. "When the press is excluded," Daugherty says, "not only is the spirit of the law violated, but people in the local area become cut off and disenfranchised (by the lack of coverage).
"There is a federal law called the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)," says Daugherty, "This law says...'whenever the government goes to outside sources for advice, the meetings shall be open.' "
Daugherty speculates the Department of Justice may have been hoping for some sort of community consensus from these meetings.
"That could be a violation of FACA," said the free press attorney. "But violation or not, this was censorship. It was a secret meeting. No one else from the community could air their opinion. And no one could challenge what was said."
Comparing Reno's censored sessions to the open forums held a little over a year ago by elected officials and the Tucson Police Department after several kids were murdered in drive-by shootings only leaves us bewildered and wondering: Why would a national official choose to censor the public and the press in such a manner?
But we wonder even more why the local press has yet to utter so much as a peep over the incident.
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