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Journalists worry about restrictions, access in impending war

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Sep 26, 2001    

Journalists worry about restrictions, access in impending war

  • Defense officials tout a need for balance between disclosure and secrecy as they begin negotiating with news media over access to troops, battlegrounds and military information.

With a burgeoning level of secrecy following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, journalists worry about restricted combat coverage and poor access to military information as the country prepares for war.

For example, the press pool system of the Persian Gulf War, where military leaders often funneled information only to large gatherings of reporters, made journalists “essentially unpaid employees of the Department of Defense,” Malcolm Browne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, told the Los Angeles Times.

Talk from the Bush administration and defense leaders haven’t been encouraging. President Bush, for one, has been blunt about the need for secrecy.

“Let me condition the press this way: Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret,” Bush said on Sept. 13, just two days after the attacks. “My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence and what the intelligence says.”

Defense officials have followed the same line, noting that government workers who leak classified information would face prosecution.

Many journalists fear rules similar to those imposed on reporters covering the early stages of the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago. The rules created press pools that kept many news media groups from covering the war.

According to those regulations, journalists also could not reveal the types, strengths or locations of troops, aircraft and military equipment. The rules prohibited coverage of religious services, the photography of wounded or dead soldiers and other images that might shock. The rules allowed field commanders to dismiss members of the press pool deemed to be physically unfit for the rigors of the desert.

Nine news organizations filed a lawsuit in the days before the war to challenge the constitutionality of the rules. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, sought an injunction blocking the Pentagon from enforcing the rules, particularly those that created press pools.

But a judge dismissed the lawsuit in April 1991 because the Gulf War was already over.

The following year, several news media organizations and the Pentagon reached an accord on the media coverage of combat. The rules, in part, allowed journalists to accompany military units in action, to participate in the occasional press pool and to report without restrictions save for extreme circumstances.

But it’s uncertain whether such standards remain in place today.

A meeting was expected this week between Pentagon officials and Washington bureau chiefs to negotiate future war coverage abroad and the effectiveness of press pools.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly cautioned government workers that they would face serious consequences if they leaked classified information that would put “the lives of men and women in uniform” in danger.

But while defense officials have touted a need for a high level of secrecy in an impending war, journalists say that shouldn’t come at the expense of coverage.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, sent a letter to Rumsfeld urging the administration to allow as much coverage as possible.

“All journalists are acutely aware of the need to balance national security considerations with the duty to inform the public truthfully,” Cochran wrote. “No news organization wants to be responsible for putting U.S. fighting me and women in harm’s way. But we also have a responsibility to keep the public informed about key government activities, which surely include military operations.”


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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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