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Pentagon restraints continue to stymie press

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From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

With the war in Afghanistan stretching past the half-year mark, the Pentagon often embeds American journalists among its troops, while their colleagues continue to benefit from military leaks when they can’t get a straight answer from the top brass.

And yet journalists persist in their complaints about access, because they believe too many restrictions remain.

“If the best information about what’s happening on the battlefield is coming from the Pentagon, then you know something is out of whack,” said Jamie McIntyre, CNN’s military affairs correspondent, during a recent panel discussion at the National Press Club. “For a long time, the best information we could get was what we were getting from the Pentagon.”

One incident in particular lingers in the minds of many in the press corps even though it happened more than two months ago. The claim from Washington Post reporter Doug Struck that an unidentified U.S. soldier threatened to shoot him if he went near a missile-strike scene made a strong impression on many journalists.

At the same time Pentagon officials denounce Struck’s claim, they continue insisting that the current conflict is “a different war.”

“This war’s different. It’s a totally different situation,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a recent American Society of Newspaper Editors conference. “And so people were wishing, my goodness, why can’t we get more information? The fact of the matter is, we didn’t have people on the ground for a while. When we did, they were in very dangerous circumstances.”

But access has improved in recent months.

Most significantly, the Pentagon in the waning days of February quietly began allowing a handful of American journalists to join U.S. ground troops in active combat. The reporters joined troops in eastern Afghanistan so they could witness assaults on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters near the town of Gardez.

The reporters joining the operation agreed to withhold filing their reports until U.S. military officials gave them permission.

But even that effort hasn’t gone off without hitches.

Some Washington bureau chiefs expressed concern that military officers in the field often felt inclined to withhold approval much too long, particularly when much of the information was made public outside of the battlefield long before.

Deborah Howell of Newhouse News Service told Rumsfeld during the editors conference that her war correspondent found it frustrating to have items struck from his copy even though the information was readily available away from the battlefield.

“He finds out the next day that the information censored from his stories was in the Pentagon briefing the day before, and leaving us in a very strange position of not being able to put into his story information that was already public, because he had made an agreement,” Howell said.

Both Rumsfeld and Assistant Defense Secretary Victoria Clarke offered to improve an appeals process so reporters could quickly appeal censorship decisions on the field.

Even stateside, reporters continue to face some restraints.

On March 19, Pentagon police officers seized a videotape from a cameraman shooting a traffic stop on a Virginia highway that runs along the northern side of the Pentagon building. Officials said they confiscated the tape because the cameraman had been on government land where photography is not permitted unless journalists have an official escort.

“I think the constructive thing to do, not to belabor this too much, but we’re constantly talking with you all and with the bureau chiefs saying, ‘Okay. Let’s accept the fact, unusual circumstances, unconventional things, happen. How are we going to handle it?'” Clarke said at the March 20 briefing right before Defense officials returned the tape. “Prior to Sept. 11, I don’t think it really occurred to us that a plane could fly into your building.”

State troopers had stopped a man driving a pickup truck on Route 110 which runs near the Pentagon building. Six-axle trucks are restricted on that road. Police said the man was of Iranian descent and did not speak English clearly. After clearing his identification and examining his truck, police let the man go.

Cameraman Gregg Gursky of Fox News’ Washington bureau caught the incident on tape. As Gursky finished taping from what he thought was public property, Pentagon police stopped him, informed him he was on government property without a permit and asked for the tape.

Gursky, who has security clearance and credentials to film at the Pentagon, refused. The officers frisked Gursky, handcuffed him and took the tape. After the officers took the tape, they removed the handcuffs from Gursky and let him go.

Although the tape-seizing incident happened in late March, Pentagon officials and bureau chiefs continued to hash out new policies concerning newsgathering on military property through April.

In general, the journalists and military officials agree that reporters and camera operators should seek an escort before gathering news on military property. But in the case of breaking news, the journalists should be able to gather the news and be willing to allow military officials to review photographs and videos afterward.

Restrictions abroad

But many of the most recent causes of frustration for journalists are actually out of the hands of American officials, particularly concerning coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

Despite pleas from press freedom activists and journalism groups, Israeli Defense Forces continue to harass, threaten and attack journalists trying to cover skirmishes in Israel’s West Bank and other parts of the country.

On April 5, Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and stun grenades into a journalist convoy in Ramallah near the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The group of 25 reporters consisted of mostly American journalists who were waiting for U.S. special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was scheduled to meet with Arafat that day.

Television reports from CNN said the Israeli troops fired five to seven stun grenades at the reporters without giving a warning. Later, the reporters were ordered to leave the area.

On April 9, a French cameraman was shot while other journalists, including some Americans, were harassed while covering a recent Israeli offensive in the West Bank.

The New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urging him to lift restrictions on reporters working in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Qalqiliya. Both the Foreign Press Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association also protested the incidents.

Despite recent withdrawals from some West Bank towns, the Israel Defense Forces continue to stifle media organizations’ efforts to cover the conflict.

“The story of what is happening in the West Bank is of utmost importance to the people of the world and needs to be reported with the accuracy that comes from first-hand observation,” wrote RTNDA President Barbara Cochran to David Ivry, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. “Threats and attacks on journalists by Israel Defense Forces are completely unwarranted.”

CBS producer Kate Rydell told the Associated Press that they were preparing to shoot footage in Ramallah on April 1 when seven Israeli jeeps pulled alongside them. Although the soldiers didn’t threaten the journalists, they told them to leave immediately because Israel had declared the West Bank a closed military zone on March 29 after it took over the formerly Palestinian-occupied area.

In a separate incident, an Israeli soldier on April 2 fired upon an MSNBC crew riding in an armored vehicle marked as a media vehicle. No one was injured.

But at least one reporter has suffered injuries in the battles. Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid on March 31 was shot in the shoulder in Ramallah and is recovering in a Jerusalem hospital. It is not known who shot him. The next day, CBS News anchor Dan Rather narrowly missed injury after a car bomber blew up an Israeli checkpoint after his crew passed it.

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, said the role of journalists has become abundantly clear during the war as the major source of information about the war effort, terrorism and government action.

Journalists, not government officials, pieced together for the public how the 19 hijackers assembled and completed their Sept. 11 mission. Reporters, too, revealed details on how and why the military and the CIA failed to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. And again, the journalists are the ones working to keep the public informed about the trials of detained foreign nationals and Taliban fighters.

“Journalists have told Americans most of what they know about the details of the war,” Downie said during a Sigma Delta Chi Foundation awards banquet on April 18. “And it is often those news accounts that have forced government to action.” — PT