Federal officials are preventing Hurricane Katrina victims in government trailer parks from being interviewed by the media unless a FEMA agent is present at all times.
The rule is coming under heavy fire from Louisiana's congressional delegation who are blasting the policy as absurd and outrageous.
"How in the world can you stop someone in their home from talking to whomever they want?" Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, asked the Baton Rouge 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 says it's not allowing media easy access to
its trailer parks in order to "protect the privacy" of those
"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 of behavior."
"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 are 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."
The Society of Professional Journalists has already 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 Committee.
"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 requests FEMA evaluate "the constitutionality of any policy that dictates when and how those affected by FEMA's work may speak to the press."
It concludes, "Receipt of FEMA aid should not mean that citizens leave their constitutional rights behind."
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