Sun, Aug 16, 2015 - Page 7 News List

New Pentagon guidelines might change war reporting

AFP, WASHINGTON

New guidelines in a US military war manual might change the rules for reporters covering conflicts, but it remains to be seen how the Pentagon is to implement the new policy.

Media watchdog organizations have expressed shock and concern that reporters could be treated as “unprivileged belligerents” under the US Department of Defense’s new Law of War Manual, which provides guidance for US commanders and others.

The Pentagon has insisted it “supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform,” but some media advocates see too much room for maneuver in the guidelines.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) joined other organizations this past week in expressing concern, sending a letter to US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, urging consultations on the issue.

In the letter to Carter, the Paris-based group said it was concerned that journalists could lose “privileged” status in combat areas merely by “the relaying of information,” which, according to the guidelines, “could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.”

“This terminology leaves too much room for interpretation, putting journalists in a dangerous situation,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in the letter.

Deloire said governments “have a duty to protect journalists covering armed conflicts” under a UN resolution and that his group was “disappointed that this manual takes a step in the wrong direction.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last month expressed similar concerns, saying the Pentagon “has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar” for press freedom.

The New York Times, in an editorial this month, called for the repeal of provisions affecting media, warning they would make the work of journalists covering armed conflict “more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship.”

The newspaper said the rules could put reporters in the same category assigned to guerrillas or members of al-Qaeda.

Treating journalists as potential spies, the newspaper argued, feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments that attempt to discredit Western journalists by falsely accusing them of espionage.

Heidi Kitrosser, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota, who follows issues of free speech and government secrecy, agreed on the potential for curbing press freedoms.

“The breadth of the manual’s language and its potential applications is alarming,” she said.

She added that the shift “is troubling for its conflict with US constitutional principles and also for its potential invoking by authoritarian regimes to support their own suppression of journalists.”

Steven Aftergood, who monitors US government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said implementation of the policy would be critical, adding that it merely codifies existing practices and laws.

“A lot depends on how those laws are interpreted in practice,” Aftergood said. “What seems clear is that extreme positions on either side of the issue are mistaken. In other words, total suppression of news coverage of war is obviously unacceptable, but so is the notion of absolute press freedom.”

“There are likely to be legitimate battlefield secrets that the military is within its rights to protect, but how to navigate between those extreme positions is less clear and is hard to state in the abstract,” he added.

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