A hearing will be held in U.S. federal court Wednesday to consider a request by the American cable station, Court TV, to televise the October trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. The French Moroccan is the first person indicted in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Federal courts do not generally allow criminal trials to be broadcast. But there is considerable debate over whether the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the alleged terrorist conspirator warrant an exception.
Zacarias Moussaoui is charged with six counts of conspiring with supporters of Osama bin Laden to carry out the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. A pilot in training, authorities allege he would have become the 20th hijacker if he had not been detained on immigration charges just a month before the attacks.
His upcoming trial has the potential to become the most widely watched since the murder trial of O.J. Simpson seven years ago. That is, if the judge agrees to Court TV's request to allow it to be televised.
The cable TV channel argues Americans, as well as people around the world, need to be able to see the evidence presented against the only person so far charged in connection with the worst terrorist attack ever against the United States. Court TV's general counsel, Doug Jacobs, says, "This case is of perhaps prime significance. It's a case that involves millions of Americans watching it. It has two huge buildings toppled, killing over 3,000 of our fellow citizens and we just think that the American public has a right to watch the trial of the alleged 20th hijacker."
The press and the public will be allowed into the courtroom. But the Justice Department argues the longstanding rule against cameras in federal criminal trials is clear, and that the judge in this case has no choice but to keep all radio and television out of the courtroom. Prosecutors also say some witnesses could be intimidated by the presence of cameras, arguing those linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network might be reluctant to testify if they knew they could be targeted for retribution.
But former FBI director William Sessions, who has also served as a federal judge and prosecutor, thinks it is in the prosecution's interests for the Moussaoui case to be as widely covered as possible. "I think it is very important," he said, "that the whole world has as much access to information in one form or another about what is actually happening so that they have the kind of faith and confidence in a fair trial that Americans are accustomed to receiving in United States District Court. This is of course a very difficult circumstance where we know that the whole world is watching and is interested, not just in the outcome but in how the trial takes place and on what was done."
While acknowledging the media do not have an absolute right to broadcast all criminal trials, Court TV is questioning the constitutionality of allowing print reporters, instead of television, to serve as the eyes and ears of the public. Chief counsel Doug Jacobs says, "If you allow a camera in, you're not just reporting on perceptions, you're actually seeing the testimony that is given by the witnesses who are called and you can make a more rational and intelligent decision about whether you believe it or not, as opposed to what you hear from a pad and pencil reporter."
Lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui say their client has no objections to having the trial televised.
Court TV is part of the AOL/Time Warner media empire which owns CNN, and allowing it to televise the trial worldwide would likely prove hugely profitable. A hearing in federal court on whether to allow the Moussaoui trial to be televised is set for Wednesday.