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Press optimistic about improved wartime access

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Dec 19, 2001    

Press optimistic about improved wartime access

  • The Pentagon renewed talks about disbanding pool coverage requirements in Afghanistan after offering journalists ‘shuttle service’ from Bahrain and opening three press information centers.

Although war has been waged on Afghanistan for more than two months without a formal media-military agreement, the American press corps remains skeptically enthusiastic about recent wartime coverage, particular as talk of disbanding press pools resurfaces.

Besides improved access to U.S. troops, journalists have recently enjoyed more freedom to roam the country. And now there’s official talk of the Pentagon opening communication centers and assigning a military cargo plane to transport journalists.

“I hate to sound optimistic, but things are going reasonably well,” said Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers.

Lewis said he only has to look at any national newspaper and see stories that “reflect the fact that our people are free to move around. That’s the way it should be.”

Journalists got a break in restricted coverage on Nov. 27 when reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters and the Gannett newspaper chain became the first to accompany U.S. troops in the war. The reporters followed a Marine unit to a military airstrip in Southern Afghanistan.

On Dec. 6, the openness hit a snag when Marines locked reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from covering American troops killed or wounded by a stray bomb north of Kandahar. But the Pentagon came back and apologized . . . in writing.

And there’s more access to come, military officials promise.

During a Dec. 13 briefing with Washington bureau chiefs, Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke unveiled a plan called “The Way Ahead in Afghanistan” that briefly outlined the Pentagon’s effort to open three Coalition Press Information Centers in Mazar-e Sharif, Bagram and Qandahar Airport.

Each center would have between five and 10 staff members charged with helping journalists get interviews, photographs and other information concerning the war. The centers would also have some communication technology available, such as computers, e-mail service and cellular phones.

In the meantime, Clarke told the journalists that Bahrain is the place to be for the best access to the war. She said military officials hope to secure use of a C-130 cargo plane to provide reporters shuttle service from Bahrain to various parts of Afghanistan.

“My sense is that when we can get a better flow of transportation going then that’s the time to break out of the pool status,” Clarke said. “The intent is to keep moving towards that because we don’t like pools any more than you all do.”

But Clarke offered no time frame for relaxing the restrictions, noting that the limited transportation keeps the pool system in place for the moment.

Lewis said he and other bureau chiefs have been pressing for something akin to coverage in Vietnam. There, American journalists engaged in open coverage of the war, including traveling with troops, provided the reporters secured the proper credentials with military officials.

“We’re at an interesting juncture,” Lewis said. “It will be interesting to see what the next step is.”

PT

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