Pentagon eases rules for reporters covering Guantanamo trials

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has revised its ground rules for reporters and photographers covering military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, earning praise from news organizations that had protested the policies as unduly restrictive.

The Defense Department issued new guidelines Friday, including not barring reporters who print information they've gathered independently of the detention camp, even if officials have deemed the information "protected."

News organizations in May had protested the Pentagon's decision to bar four reporters from Guantanamo for identifying an interrogator by name in stories written from Guantanamo. Though he was described in court only as "Interrogator No. 1," the interrogator's name had been known for years after he gave newspaper interviews.

David A. Schulz, an attorney for several of the news organizations with ousted reporters, including McClatchy, called the changes to the rules "significant." The news groups had argued that the tough restrictions made it difficult for the public to know what was happening at the camp, which the Obama administration has vowed to close.

"They've made a concerted effort to respond to the concerns that were raised and they've taken several significant steps to improve the ability of reporters to cover what is happening at Guantanamo," Schulz said. "I think it's an earnest effort to respond to the problems the press has experienced in trying to cover military commissions."

Among the changes: Photographers will be able to crop — and not be forced to destroy — photos that contain subjects that are off-limits, such as security checkpoints. Video may also be edited to remove offending sections, rather than entire video clips being erased, as had been the practice.

"The new rules suggest that the Defense Department is making a good faith effort to eliminate some of the conditions that have made it difficult or impossible to give the proceedings at Guantanamo the complete and accurate coverage they deserve," said John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy. "It's certainly a step in the right direction for the Pentagon to acknowledge that journalists shouldn't be punished for republishing information that's widely available on the Internet. That's good news, but of course we won't know how well the new rules will work until the trials resume."

Anders Gyllenhaal, the executive editor of the Miami Herald, which McClatchy owns, said the changes look "very promising. This suggests the Pentagon took a hard look at how things were working and took our concerns seriously."

The dispute arose when four reporters were banned from Guantanamo for naming Army Sgt. Joshua Claus as an interrogator during a hearing for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr. The name was considered "protected information," though Claus had given a newspaper interview denying that he'd abused Khadr.

The Herald's Carol Rosenberg, who was one of the reporters banned, said the changes "leave room for optimism, particularly the portion that makes crystal clear it is not a violation to publish already public information, even if they call it 'protected.' But we have to wait until we get to Guantanamo to see how these are implemented on the ground by the U.S. forces."

Doug Wilson, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs who traveled to Guantanamo to review conditions for journalists and met over several weeks with newspaper editors and bureau chiefs to discuss the changes, said the Pentagon was "aware time had passed and the regulations had not caught up. When we took a look there were very valid issues on the part of the press and also valid issues on part of the military."

The revisions also offer journalists an opportunity to challenge the rules, including protesting the designation of information the military considers "protected," and provides reporters with an appeals process if the military finds they violated the rules.

Schulz said the Pentagon — in addition to making an exception for information that is already public — had clarified and narrowed the definition of "protected information" to include classified information and information that could jeopardize national security or personal safety.

Reporters had also complained about the routine denial of even unclassified court records, and the Pentagon has promised better access, including another printer for documents at the base and a revised website.

Wilson said he's hoping the records site will be up before trials resume in October.

"These ground rules are good for us as well," said Bryan Whitman, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense. "We want to have not only Guantanamo, the base, but the commissions, as open and transparent as possible, and where that's appropriate without compromising the security or integrity of the commissions, we're very much open to it."

The changes even cover living arrangements: Reporters had complained that the air conditioners used in the tents that house them are too cold and loud. Wilson said the air conditioners will be sandbagged to cut down noise and checked to ensure that they can be regulated for temperature.

One rule that won't be changed: Reporters will still need escorts around the facilities.

"Press on military bases require escorts," Wilson said.

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