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U.S. won't ban media from New Orleans searches

CNN filed suit for right to cover search for bodies of Katrina victims



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Disaster Relief

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- Rather than fight a lawsuit by CNN, the federal government abandoned its effort Saturday to prevent the media from reporting on the recovery of the dead in New Orleans.

Joint Task Force Katrina "has no plans to bar, impede or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts," said Col. Christian E. deGraff, representing the task force.

U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison issued a temporary restraining order Friday against a "zero access" policy announced earlier in the day by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security director.

In explaining the ban, Ebbert said, "we don't think that's proper" to let members of the media view the bodies.

Army Lt. Col. Richard Steele, a member of Honore's staff, told CNN Saturday night that Honore was partly misunderstood. Steele said Honore meant that no media would be allowed to be imbedded with teams recovering bodies. However, recovery groups would not prevent reporters from doing their jobs, he added.

"He did not say we're going to ban anybody. We're not going to restrict them from any public areas whatsoever," Steele said. "We don't have any legal recourse to do any kind of law enforcement or anything like that in our role. So the only thing we do is we can control who goes with us; on our aircraft and on our trucks and in our boats, if that applies."

The judge was to consider granting a permanent injunction Saturday when the government announced its decision not to enforce the "zero access" policy. (Court transcript)

Reacting to the decision, CNN News Group President Jim Walton said, "We are pleased by the decision. The free flow of information is vital for a free society."

In an e-mail to CNN staff on Friday, Walton said the network filed the the lawsuit to "prohibit any agency from restricting its ability to fully and fairly cover" the hurricane victim recovery process.

"As seen most recently from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, from tsunami-ravaged South Asia and from Hurricane Katrina's landfall along the Gulf," Walton wrote, "CNN has shown that it is capable of balancing vigorous reporting with respect for private concerns."

CNN filed suit against Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, arguing that the officials who announced the decision were acting on FEMA's behalf.

"For an agency to unilaterally ban all coverage of a major component of its governmental function, that is, recovery of the deceased victims of the tragedy, is unprecedented," CNN argued in its legal brief. "Instead, the agency has made a subjective, content-based determination that publicizing the operation would be 'without dignity.'"

CNN's brief argued, "It is not the place of government to replace its own internal judgment for that of a free and independent media."

Because of controversy about how FEMA and other agencies handled the disaster response, CNN lawyers argued, "it is even more vitally important for the public, Congress and the administration to have an independent view of the conduct of this important phase of the operation."

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