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Editorial: Don't restrict media after disasters

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POSTED: February 20, 2007 5:06 a.m.
Liberty County commissioners are expected to consider Tuesday a proposed ordinance authorizing the imposition of curfews during emergencies and disasters.
The proposal is meant to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the county’s residents and property during such times by providing an extra measure of security from looters, vandals and thieves.
According to the proposed ordinance, a “curfew” would require any person “not exempt” to refrain from appearing in public areas during specified hours.
Those who would be exempt include fire, law, EMS and hospital personnel, as well as people providing military services and utility emergency repairs.
Among those who “MAY” be exempt — at the discretion of the local governing authority — would be the news media, and building and repair contractors who have properly registered.
In our opinion, the news media should not only be among those who are definitely exempt from the curfew, but should be welcomed into devastated areas.
During emergency and disaster situations, the public in the affected areas and outside of those locations looks to the media for information.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the media informed the people living in affected areas about evacuations, shelter locations, who to contact to try and locate missing loved ones and pets, and where to go for help. It was also the media who arrived in rural areas — many times before any state or federal agencies — and made the public aware of the needs of small communities that weren’t as well known to the outside world as New Orleans. When Hurricane Rita slammed into parts of southern Louisiana and southeast Texas, it was the local media that people looked to for vital information.
In many instances, the media in those locations suffered their own structural losses but still managed to station reporters and photographers throughout their coverage area and posted the news on the Web. Residents who evacuated looked to the media in the devastated areas for damage reports, FEMA and Red Cross centers — any kind of news from home. Families and friends of people who lived in the areas also scoured the Internet, newspapers and television coverage for any available details.
While it is understandable government officials want to deter looting and lessen the chance of people being injured, journalists are trained to stay out of the way of emergency workers. They also have a job to do - just like those noted on the “exempt” list and would refrain from looting “just like those on the exempt list.”
In America, the First Amendment guarantees “freedom of the press” and it is the job of journalists to find the news and report it. Sometimes, that means venturing into areas that may be dangerous. We’ve seen journalists in Iraq covering the war and we’ve seen some lose their lives. Although it’s a tragic situation, they died doing their jobs — providing the public with information and enhancing awareness about important issues.
Yes, Liberty County can try to regulate when and where the media can go, but it’s the nature of journalists to “get the story” — with or without curfews. And yes, reporters and photographers could be fined or jailed for failing to comply with curfews, but that probably wouldn’t stop them from doing their jobs.
In fact, placing a journalist in jail would more than likely cause scrutiny by the national media who would look to each of our local officials for answers.
We urge the Liberty County Commission to include the news media who have properly registered among those who are “definitely” exempt from curfews, and allow them access to do their job.
 

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