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Pentagon tightens rules on military interaction with media

(RSF/IFEX) - Defence secretary Robert Gates has decreed stricter rules for military contacts with the media. In a three-page memo sent to all senior military and civilian officials in the defence department on 2 July 2010, Gates said they had "grown lax" in recent months and often contravened the established rules and procedures.

"I have said many times that we must strive to be as open, accessible and transparent as possible," Gates said in the memo. However, he added, "leaking of classified information is against the law, cannot be tolerated and will, when proven, lead to the prosecution of those found to be engaged in such activity."

Even divulging unclassified information on "sensitive" issues will be subject to sanctions. Gates said in his memo that all senior military officers would now have to notify the office of the Defence Department's assistant secretary for public affairs before giving interviews.

Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by the decision to tighten restrictions on military relations with the media. The authorities clearly have a right to protect classified information but these restrictions could complicate journalists' work and make it harder for them to access information. The use of the term "sensitive" also needs to be clarified as it is too vague and lends itself to too wide a range of interpretations.

The Gates memo has been issued at a time when the Pentagon is already trying to reduce and block access to sources of information in contravention of the Freedom of Information Act. In May, four journalists were banned from covering trials at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Comments by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that were quoted in the 25 June issue of the magazine "Rolling Stone" led to his dismissal as commander of the US forces in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama said he had failed to "meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general."

In a government department in which the rules are already very strict, the memo raises the issue of transparency. So much prior control on interaction with the media could result in a totally uniform discourse that renders the military's activities and operations even more opaque.

The new rules revive the debate about the US government's lack of transparency in the wake of the controversial posting of a video on Wikileaks showing a US helicopter strike in Baghdad in July 2007 in which two employees of the Reuters news agency and a dozen other civilians were targeted and killed. Wikileaks said the video, posted on 5 April, came from "military sources".

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