- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Amid protest from journalists groups, the Veterans Affairs Department agreed late Friday to return a radio reporter’s recording equipment that it had seized three days earlier as he attempted to interview an injured veteran about VA health care.

In a written statement to The Associated Press, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the department “regrets this incident occurred” and as a result would hand back the flash drive that it took from WAMU reporter David Schultz at the VA Medical Center in Washington. WAMU is a National Public Radio affiliate in the capital.

“After reviewing all the facts surrounding the incident of April 7th and actions since, VA has arranged the return of the flash drive to WAMU,” Roberts said. “We make every effort to protect the privacy of our patients and to ensure that they are able to make informed decisions about what information they release or discuss with the public while in a VA facility.”

“The Department of Veterans Affairs regrets this incident occurred as we appreciate the interest of the press in covering veterans’ issues,” she added.

Schultz attended the public forum on Tuesday night that was held at the VA medical center’s auditorium to allow veterans to express concerns about the quality of their care. After one veteran spoke, Schultz invited him into the hallway for a recorded interview.

They were then interrupted by Gloria Hairston, a hospital public affairs officer, who said Schultz could not do the interview. Hairston demanded that Schultz hand over his recording equipment unless both he and the veteran signed consent forms allowing reporters to conduct interviews on VA property.

When Schultz refused to comply, Hairston had security officers bar him from leaving. Fearing arrest, the radio journalist handed over the memory card from his recording device, which contained hours of other interviews he had collected that were unrelated to the VA story.

Throughout the day Friday, the VA insisted that release forms must be signed as lawyers for WAMU and journalists groups called on the VA to immediately return the reporter’s equipment as well as issue an apology for the incident. Those sending letters of protest to the VA included the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

In her letter Friday, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, called the VA’s actions clearly illegal. She noted that Tuesday’s episode was similar to a 2004 incident involving Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in which federal marshals in Mississippi seized the digital recorders from reporters for the AP and the Hattiesburg American.

After the AP sued, the government conceded that the Marshals Service had violated federal law when it ordered the reporters to erase their recordings of Scalia’s speech at a Hattiesburg high school. Scalia also apologized, calling the incident a misunderstanding.

“The law requires the VA to immediately return Mr. Schultz’s sound card,” Dalglish said.


On the Net:

Department of Veterans Affairs: https://www.va.gov

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: https://www.rcfp.org/

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