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Pentagon issues new rules for Guantanamo coverage

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders takes note of the new ground rules for journalists covering the "military commissions" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the US Defence Department issued on 10 September 2010. They represent a positive first step in a dialogue between the Pentagon and the media but the organisation is concerned by the control that the military continues to exercise over reporting. It remains to be seen how the rules are applied in practice.

The new rules contain three major changes:

1 - Journalists will no longer run the risk of being expelled or barred from Guantanamo because of information they report that was obtained in the course of news gathering outside Guantanamo.

2 - The Pentagon's public affairs office will still check the contents of cameras but will no longer automatically delete photos and videos with content it considers "protected." Photographers will be able to crop a photo (or edit video) instead of having to delete it, but they will be limited to two cropped images a day.

3 - If the public affairs office denies journalists access to certain information, they will be able to make a written appeal to discuss the decision.

"The Defence Department has taken affirmative steps," said New York lawyer David Schulz, who is representing several news organisations including the "The Miami Herald", "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", AP, Dow Jones and Reuters. "They acknowledge that they cannot censor the information gathered outside Guantanamo anymore. There is definitely a credit for making an effort to make it more feasible for the reporters to follow what is going on at Guantanamo."

Schulz told Reporters Without Borders that journalists will also be able to access public documents relating to the military trials in Guantanamo more easily as they will be listed on a Pentagon website ( http://www.defense.gov/home/features/gitmo ) that will be revamped in December.

Mark Seibel, who oversees the McClatchy Washington bureau's website, said: "I would say that on paper it is a good step forward and about what I had expected. I am still sorry they feel they need to review all photos and video. Key to us is the provision of the document inventory, which is a list of all filings in a case. By regulation, it is unclassified. If they begin making it available, we will know what has been filed and then can at least ask for copies."

"The Miami Herald" reporter Carol Rosenberg, who was one of four reporters barred from Guantanamo in May, told Reporters Without Borders: "I am still studying [the new rules]. They leave room for optimism, particularly the portion that makes crystal clear it is not a violation to publish already public information even if it is labelled 'Protected Information'."

Rosenberg and three Canadian journalists - Paul Koring of the "The Globe and Mail", Michelle Shephard of the "The Toronto Star" and Stephen Edwards of CanWest - were barred from Guantanamo on 6 May for publishing the name of an army interrogator who testified at a hearing about the methods used to interrogate a Canadian detainee, Omar Khadr, in 2002. The reporters have since been allowed to return.

Limited optimism

The new rules do not in any way modify the Pentagon's control over coverage of the trials. Military judges are still able to demand that journalists reveal the sources of their information and can still prosecute them for contempt of court if they refuse.

Although reporters covering the Guantanamo military trials now have a right to interview prosecutors and defence lawyers, the public affairs officers are still "the sole approval authority" for granting interview requests.

"The same kind of attitude has been apparent in other recent Defence Department decisions concerning relations with the media," Reporters Without Borders said. "It seems that the Pentagon still intends to maintain very tight control over the information that is given to the press and public. We fear that such controls will end up discouraging the public affairs office from talking to the media."

In a 2 September memo to officials and the news media, assistant secretary of defence for public affairs Douglas B. Wilson reasserted the Pentagon's determination to curb the flow of unauthorised information to the news media. It echoed the memo that defence secretary Robert Gates sent to all Pentagon officials on 2 July ordering them to check with the public affairs office before any contact with the media or public.

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