Press stands up to White House on Abu Ghraib torture photos

A coalition of 14 media organizations and public interest groups organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have filed an amicus brief in federal court in New York urging the release of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos. The coalition, which includes CBS, NBC and the New York Times, supports a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Pentagon, which has been pending since October 2003.

The government argues that the information is protected by Exemption 7(F) of the FOIA, which protects law enforcement records from disclosure when they “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.” Citing recent riots in Afghanistan following Newsweek’s publication of an article about claims of Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, the government says the release of Abu Ghraib photos could similarly incite violence against military personnel overseas.

“The government has taken the position in this case that the more outrageously the behavior exhibited by American troops, the less the public has a right to know about it,” said Reporters Committee executive director Lucy Dalglish. “Such a stance turns the Freedom of Information Act inside out.”

The photos at issue, known as the “Joseph Darby records” after the military police officer who first turned them over to the Army in 2004, graphically depict detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. A handful of them were leaked to reporter Seymour Hersh and published in the May 10, 2004, edition of The New Yorker. Some also were broadcast by CBS News. The story and photos made front-page news around the world. Several of the military guards identified in the first batch of Abu Ghraib photos made public in the spring of 2004 have been convicted and punished for their roles in the abuse.

US District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein had earlier ordered the government to prepare the Darby photos for release by redacting any detainees’ identifying features. (See Boston Globe, June 4). But just hours before the July 23 deadline, the government filed its Exemption 7(F) claim.

The 14 news organizations are the Tribune Company, Advance Publications, American Society of Newspaper Editors, CBS, the EW Scripps Company, the Hearst Corporation, Investigative Reporters and Editors, NBC, the Newspaper Association of America, the New York Times, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newspaper Guild-CWA, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (RCFP press release, Aug. 4)

See also the ACLU’s timeline on the case.

See our last post on the ongoing torture scandal.