Free press essential to democracy

In times of war and crisis, the free flow of information is a necessity, not a luxury.

A free and energetic press is crucial to a working democracy. Hurricane Katrina’s longer aftermath has exposed both the lackadaisical nature of our media and the government’s desire to censor the press.

A few days after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. military said that no press would be allowed to document the recovery of Katrina victims, citing the deceased’s need “for dignity.”

CNN filed suit against the government, and a U.S. district court ruled that the government could not bar the press from recording events with a caveat that press photographers cannot be embedded with the military on boats or helicopters.

The Bush administration is attempting to censor images that would show the true devastation from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. If they can control the images coming out of New Orleans, they can control the fallout.

But more importantly, the press does not always have the excuse to give up and give in to the law. It is their job and duty to get the images and the stories the government doesn’t want them to find and give them to the public. If they have to break the law, so be it. In this case, the exercising of the freedom of the press trumps the laws put down by the government.

Since 1991, with some exception, there has been a total ban on photos of soldiers returning to the United States in flag-draped coffins. Like the refusal to release the hundreds of pictures of Abu Ghraib tortures, this is another example of the U.S. government preventing the free flow of information. It should be the public, not the government, that decides what is or is not appropriate.

While it is of utmost importance to respect the families and the deceased, it is also essential to keep events like these in the public record. The people of the United States or any democracy must know the progress of war and recovery. Propaganda under the guise of moral redaction is unacceptable. A lazy, gutless press and an aggressive government is not a combination for a fertile democracy.