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U.S. military in Cuba keeps journalists at bay

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From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 43.

From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 43.

By Alicia Upano

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg first went to Guantanamo Bay in early 2002 as the detainees captured in the War on Terrorism trickled into the U.S. naval station on the southeast shore of Cuba.

She met with commanders and policymakers who she said were fairly candid about human rights, logistics and long-range challenges and who appeared to recognize and respect the role of reporters as the eyes and ears of the world. But as the months wore on, reporters, including Rosenberg, have found little to see or hear at Guantanamo.

Access at the United States naval station has tightened as journalists from around the world fly in weekly to report on the base where about 625 suspected terrorists from 42 nations were held as of late October. Since January, about 600 journalists from 22 countries have visited the naval station.

When the detainees initially arrived at Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray, a temporary open-air holding facility, journalists reported a general sense of openness from the military. From a vantage point of about 200 feet, reporters could see the detainees dressed in orange jumpsuits.

Journalists were driven around the compound for better views, escorted through the hospital where some detainees received treatment and given relative freedom to interview both guards and civilians on base.

Journalists first reported a change in access when detainees transferred to the newly erected Camp Delta in late April. Camp Delta is fenced in green tarp, which hides the prisoners.

All press are assigned media escorts who sometimes interfere with journalists speaking with civilians or who coach military personnel on what to say to the press.

Media escorts accompany journalists around the base, including to restrooms and vending machines. Journalists are shielded from events that occur on base and are kept about a quarter mile from Camp Delta.

As it stands, journalists can confirm little by independent observation and must rely on the military’s word. On a larger scale, they fear that restricted access at Guantanamo is one more victory for government secrecy and one more loss for openness.

“What’s at stake here is the ability of the press to convey to the American people what this country is doing in its name and why,” New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye said.

Military relations

“I wouldn’t even use the word ‘access.’ There is no access, there is access to nothing,” Seelye said of the current state of media restrictions at Guantanamo Bay. “They somehow just got more and more removed of having any sense of what journalists need.”

Seelye, Rosenberg, Voice of America Miami Bureau Chief Michael Bowman and Associated Press Carribean News Editor Paisley Dodds agreed that media access has worsened through each of Guantanamo’s three- to six-month personnel rotations.

“It was remarkably open when I first arrived,” Bowman said. “I believe the initial [public affairs officers] were full-time military personnel. They had years of dealing with the media. At times, they even acted as our advocates, trying to get us access to things they thought we should see.”

Rosenberg was one of 17 journalists who went to Guantanamo in September when journalists reported the “most challenging” relations thus far between media and military on the base.

“Now, there’s a virtual absolute control over who we talk to and how,” she said.

Journalists interested in covering events at Guantanamo Bay must go through U.S. Southern Command for approval. Before departing from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico, all journalists must sign a list of ground rules, which, from January through September, said nothing about media escorts, monitored interviews or interactions with civilians.

The ground rules have been modified since September. They now require all members of the press to have media escorts when on the side of the base where the detainees are kept.

Recent changes on base include the departure of Army Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus Oct. 9 who had been commander of the detention mission since March, Lt. Col. Bill Costello of U.S. Southern Command said. Baccus was subsequently relieved of all military duties with the Rhode Island National Guard.

Nearly two weeks later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that several detainees who were found to be neither a terrorist threat nor useful towards intelligence would be released, the media reported. Initial requests as to how many detainees, from where, and when they will be released were refused.

“Now, their attention seems very different: ‘The less access reporters have, the better,'” VOA’S Bowman said.

Press management

“Paternalistic” is the word Toronto Globe and Mail International Affairs reporter Paul Knox used to describe the interview policy at Guantanamo. Knox, who had visited the base in August, said all interviews were pre-approved and all subjects were pre-interviewed.

Knox said that group interviews of personnel were frequently cut short and that media escorts often prevented military personnel from responding.

During Australian reporter Gay Alcorn’s January visit, she said the media escorts were helpful in lining up interviews and that no escort supervised her interviews with marines, doctors and nurses.

“Everyone was confident that their message was true and it was a consistent message,” said Alcorn, who was on assignment for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. “[They said] the inmates were being treated well, [and] that the U.S. was a shining example to the world of the humane treatment of detainees.”

But Seelye’s visit many months later, during a September 11 remembrance ceremony at Guantanamo Bay, was markedly different.

“Each of us had a personal escort who would stand there and basically stare at the poor, little National Guardswomen and it was hard to get anything human out of that person,” Seelye said.

The military’s use of media escorts to supervise interviews sends a “terrible message,” Rosenberg said. “The message is that the public affairs officers do not trust experienced, trained professional soldiers and sailors engaging in a serious mission to know what they should or shouldn’t say to reporters.”

“Anywhere where you might have any sort of ordinary interaction with anyone on that base you had an escort at your elbow. It was more obtrusive than any other time,” Rosenberg added.

Service members’ reluctance to speak to the media, as was explained to Bowman, is rooted in a fear that terrorists may be compiling a “hit list” of those who served in Guantanamo Bay and that having their names in publications and on television will make them a target for reparations sometime in the future.

Reports from journalists suggest that Joint Task Force 160, the unit that was charged with detainee operations, kept close track of who’s who on base, be it U.S. citizen or foreigner, journalist or civilian.

JTF 160 released a statement in early August, outlining its preparations for the next media influx. The statement described The Mirror, a British tabloid as “aimed at a European audience deemed more critical of the detention operation here than most American news outlets.” It also described the paper’s reporter as “the kind of journalist military public-affairs people tend to keep a close eye on.”

Although no action was taken against the tabloid, other media were banned from returning to the base. A camera crew with RAI, the Italian state television network, and two Associated Press photographers were found in violation of ground rules and told not to return to the base, U. S. Southern Command Public Affairs Officer Thomas Crosson said.

The RAI journalists had taped an interview with the sea as a backdrop and were told by the military that they could not photograph the sea as it was a risk to “operational security,” AP’s Dodds said.

The crew was barred from the Camp Delta side of the base for the rest of the visit. The AP photographers were told they were shooting too close to camp, Dodds said. One AP photographer was eventually allowed back on Guantanamo more than six months later.

Out of the picture

Although journalists are told when to go to the filing center and the bathroom, when to eat and even which door to use, journalists are not always told about events publicly known to the rest of the world, even while they are happening on base.

Dodds and Rosenberg both pointed to moments when the press was shielded from the arrival of detainees and the departure of the American-born alleged Taliban fighter Yaser Esam Hamdi.

One reporter noted that the chance of getting information about Guantanamo Bay from correspondents in Afghanistan and Washington was greater than from the naval station itself.

Photographers were particularly handicapped by restricted access since the detainees were transferred to Camp Delta. The opaque, green tarp wrapped around the prison is said to comply with the Geneva Convention requirement not to place prisoners-of-war on display, although they technically are not prisoners-of-war.

“[There is] little point in taking television crews to a point where the only shot was of a green screen blocking the views,” Knox said.

He added that camera operators were told not to climb a hill for a better vantage point and were forbidden from photographing the ocean.

Dodds said photographers previously were allowed to shoot panoramas of the ocean and the prison.

RAI and another foreign crew were initially told they could film soldiers gathering to remember September 11 at Guantanamo Bay, Dodds said. But the evening before, they were told that they would not be able to shoot video of the event, as the military claimed it would ruin “the spirituality of events,” she said.

The crews returned home with little more than stock photos.

Looking forward

Whether the current level of security is necessary at Guantanamo Bay is debatable. However, several journalists complain that requests are rejected purely on the grounds of “operational security” with no further explanation.

“The access was so severely restricted that, as a reporter, I could not convey anything about the humane treatment of the prisoners other than taking the military’s word for it,” Bowman said. “As a human being, your natural suspicion when confronted with this quasi-paranoia and kept under confinement is to wonder: Why? What are they worried about?”

Seelye said many reporters understand and respect certain military restrictions, but that “they’ve just taken this down to such a level of minutia that it has become self-defeating.”

Several journalists suggested that a greater sense of cooperation would be possible with a public affairs office more tuned to the functions and needs of journalists, as was the case when the detainees first arrived.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists fears the kind of precedent the U.S. sets for other governments by restricting access to journalists, such as that at Guantanamo.

“The U.S. rhetoric on the dangers of dissent during wartime provided convenient cover for governments seeking to justify their repressive policies,” CPJ wrote in its recent 9/11: Looking Back, Looking Forward special report.

“I think that the longer this goes on — unless the media loses interest — there should be more demand for more information,” Australian reporter Alcorn said.

Although most reporters have little faith that restrictions will change and feel that they will continue to deal with new types of press management every time military personnel rotate through Guantanamo, the Herald’s Rosenberg said it can be done.

” The [military] needs to show us what they are creating on behalf of America down in ‘Gitmo,’ within the very real, serious bounds of national security,” Rosenberg said. “I believe this can be done. Soldiers and officers I’ve spoken to believe this can be done. The commanders and policymakers need to do a better job of balancing these needs.”

Guantanamo officials take great care to share a detailed version of what life is like inside the camp and, at the same time, great care is taken to make sure that none of it could be verified with actual observation, Knox said. “I don’t think anyone, especially in the U.S. armed forces, would be proud to stand up and defend that as an operating principle.”