FEMA LIFTS REPORTER BAN
Katrina victims in trailer parks were barred from talking with media without fed agent
Posted: July 26, 2006
FEMA announced today it reversed a policy preventing Hurricane
Katrina victims in government trailer parks from being interviewed by the media unless an agent was present.
"We're responding to your criticism," James Stark, director of FEMA's
Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office told editors and staff members of the Baton Rouge Advocate, which broke the story.
The new policy "will allow media full access to the group site trailer
parks" without representatives of FEMA accompanying them, Stark said.
"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," he added.
A Louisiana congressman critical of the restrictive policy was cautiously optimistic about
the announced change, the Baton Rouge paper reported.
"When political pressure starts building, they immediately say they are
going to change things and make them better," said Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon.
"I just hope they're being honest with you," Melancon added. "I think
I'll have to see it first before I believe it."
Prior to the announcement, Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal blasted the policy
as absurd and outrageous.
"How in the world can you stop someone in their home from talking to
whomever they want?" he asked the Advocate. "It's a freedom of speech issue; it's a freedom of association issue."
Jindal was reacting to an incident the paper reported July 15, where
a reporter and photographer were ordered off a Federal Emergency Management Agency-operated trailer park in Morgan City, La.
The journalists were invited to a trailer by resident Dekotha Devall
and her family. But during the interview, the news team was ordered by a security guard to leave.
When the reporter tried giving a business card to Devall, the security
guard called police, saying such an act was forbidden.
The guard also told another resident, Pansy Ardeneaux, she was not permitted
to speak to reporters through a chain-link fence at the park and ordered her back to her trailer.
Upon learning of the incident, FEMA officials said media had to be escorted
at all times by members of the agency.
"If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted
by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview," FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rodi told the Advocate. "That's just policy."
FEMA said it was not allowing media easy access to its trailer parks
in order to "protect the privacy" of those dwelling there.
Jindal called such a policy ridiculous.
"FEMA just strikes you as a bureaucracy that's out of control," the congressman
said. "You don't lose your fundamental rights just because you're living in temporary housing. It's an outrageous pattern
"To try and defend the behavior and say that was FEMA policy added insult
to injury," Jindal added. "FEMA should have apologized and tried to rectify the situation."
Other members of Congress were stunned.
"These people are not incarcerated; they're not crooks," said Rep. Charlie
Melancon, D-Napoleonville. "There's no reason why the press or anyone else shouldn't be able to talk to these folks if they
want to talk."
Rep. Charles W. Boustany, R-Lafayette, noted, "This seems to be a clear
case of arrogance coupled with incompetence and that's not a good combination. I don't think the heavy hand of government
should be telling people what they can and can't do in that regard."
The Society of Professional Journalists sent a complaint to FEMA Director
David R. Paulison. It was signed by SPJ president David E. Carlson and Charles N. Davis, co-chair of the Freedom of Information
"On behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, we are writing
to express outrage at the treatment given to residents of FEMA parks in Louisiana
and the journalists trying to report their stories," the two wrote.
"We are outraged by the arrogance and contempt for public discourse on
display in Louisiana, a year after FEMA's performance in the wake of Katrina earned it widespread criticism," the letter states.
"Now FEMA is banning reporters from public property as reporters try to provide scrutiny of the agency.
"We fail to see how such journalism is anything but the very sort of
newsgathering for which the First Amendment was created," the letter says.
The message requested FEMA evaluate "the constitutionality of any policy
that dictates when and how those affected by FEMA's work may speak to the press."
It concluded, "Receipt of FEMA aid should not mean that citizens leave
their constitutional rights behind."