VA Agrees to Return Reporter's Equipment

WASHINGTON (AP) - Amid protest from journalist 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 reporters 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.
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On the Net:
Department of Veterans Affairs: www.va.gov
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
http://www.rcfp.org/


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