Pentagon relaxes reporter guidelines at Guantanamo Bay

Rosemary Lane | Newsgathering | Feature | September 14, 2010

The Department of Defense last week released expanded reporters’ ground rules for military trials at Guantanamo Bay. The changes came after members of the media complained about the trials’ lack of transparency.

After meeting with media organizations in early August and again last Friday, the Department of Defense addressed concerns such as difficulty in appealing the government's definition of "protected information" and its prohibition on the cropping of videos and photos as an alternative means to protect confidential information, said Tanya Bradsher, press officer for the Office of Security Defense Western Hemisphere.

“The old ground rules locked us into a procedure,” Bradsher said. “These give us more levels of control in the appeal process for journalists and organizations.”

John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy, the third largest newspaper company in the U.S., said most of the concerns raised in August were addressed in Friday’s meeting. Walcott said while the revisions are a step in the right direction, the execution, particularly in staff training, will be a determining factor.

“I think they’re a good faith effort by the [Department of Defense] to address the problems that have prevented reporting from Guantanamo to be as complete and accurate as it ought to be, but whether or not they achieve the goal remains to be seen,” Walcott said.

The new guidelines allow for videos and photographs to be cropped if they contain images of secure information, like access roads or security checkpoints, instead of being deleted like they used to be, according to the Defense Department’s report.

The report also narrows the definition of what’s considered “protected information,” and provides for an appeal process in which reporters or their organizations can challenge what’s considered protected.

The report has been a welcome change for the media, particularly because the Defense Department came under fire earlier this year for obstructing journalists from obtaining unclassified documents, abruptly closing courtrooms, failing to videotape certain proceedings and barring four journalists from proceedings.

Last May four journalists -- from The Toronto Star, Canwest News Service, The Miami Herald, and The (Toronto) Globe and Mail -- were barred for publishing the name of a witness at the trial of Canadian-born Omar Khadr. The witness’ name was referred to at the trial as “Interrogator No. 1,” though his name had been previously publicized.

The revisions stipulate that journalists will not be in violation of the ground rules for republishing protective information, and the rules make it easier for journalists to gain court documents: The military is even setting up another printer. The ground rules also address concerns related to housing: Military officials will sandbag air conditioners in reporters' tents to decrease noise, said Bradsher.

Still, Walcott said many areas of the revision lack proper criteria, such as those for redaction, how the appeals process will work in practice and how journalists can republish protected information that’s been “legally obtained.”

“In whose eyes?” Walcott said of the phrase. “Is information that was leaked by someone without authority legally obtained? My answer is yes, I’m not sure what their answer will be.”

Media representatives still must have an escort and cannot take any pictures or have any contact with detainees, military judges and courtroom personnel, the report said.

Bradsher said these revisions will help for the department to “provide operational security for very sensitive operations but to allow as much transparency as humanly possible.”

Bradsher will head to Guantanamo Bay Monday with 15 journalists in the first implementation of the new rules for the trial of Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese citizen who’s been held for eight years and one month at Guantanamo.

Bradsher added that the revisions include the ability for them to be changed or updated at will. “One thing I’ve learned from Guantanamo Bay is expect the unexpected,” she said. “Surely there will be things that will pop up.”