Friday, April 29, 2005

Journalism Organizations Ask Rumsfeld To Reverse Restrictions Placed on Journalists

A handful of journalism organizations wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on April 27 asking him to rescind restrictions placed on reporters covering the court martial trial of Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Akbar is accused of killing two fellow officers while stationed in Kuwait.

According to the organizations, reporters were required to sign an "agreement" before gaining access to the proceedings. Reporter Jeff Schogol of the Easton (Pa.) Express-Times wrote on April 17: "I had to agree to 14 such ground rules, including: I can't talk to any soldiers or civilians on the base without permission. I can be searched at any time. I can't ask the legal adviser provided to the media to speculate on how evidence or testimony might affect the trial's outcome. I have to be escorted everywhere I go on Fort Bragg. When I go to the men's room, my military escort waits patiently outside. Breaking the rules means I will no longer cover the court martial."

The "agreement" is one of a recent series of incidents in which the military has imposed restrictions on reporter access, leading some journalists to speculate whether the military is using the need for "homeland security" as an excuse to limit reporters' First Amendment rights.
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In its letter to Rumsfeld, the organizations cited a handful of court cases dating to 1977 that upheld the military press' first amendment rights to cover court martials without restrictions. Also, the Manual for Courts-Martial United States recognizes the need for open court-martial proceedings. The manual allows for restrictions in extreme situations, but restrictions can be imposed "only after finding no reasonable alternative will safeguard that interest and after providing for a narrow closure based on specific findings that can be reviewed on appeal. "

"The purported 'agreement' does not meet that test," the organizations wrote Rumsfeld. "No public hearing was held, no showing was made and no judicial findings were rendered to justify press restrictions of any sort. We therefore implore you to immediately renounce the constraints this document places on the press, so that we are not forced to bring this issue to a court's attention. "

Eugene Fidell, a lawyer who specializes in military law, told the Express-Times he has never heard of restrictions against talking to soldiers. "That strikes me as crazy," he said.

Fidell represented the Denver Post in its lawsuit after the government threw the newspaper out of the trial for several soldiers accused of killing an Iraqi general. The reporters were ultimately allowed back into the courtroom.

Fidell told the Express-Times that Fort Bragg is a "garden variety" base, not Guantanamo Bay, and thus the rule against talking to soldiers and civilians without permission "seems like overkill and security concerns run amok."

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The Fort Bragg "agreement" is the latest incident under Rumsfeld's leadership in which reporters' First Amendment rights were limited.

Trista Tallton, a military affairs reporter based in Wilmington, N.C., told the Express-Times: "Homeland security for me has opened this black hole about what we're getting access to in the future because it's so easy to say it's a matter of national security, homeland security, and you're not going to get access to it."

She said she found similar restrictions when she covered the court martial of a Marine accused of accidentally killing several people when his plane clipped the wires of a cable car in Italy.
And for an upcoming court martial of a Marine accused of killing two Iraqis, Tallton said the military wants to put the media in a satellite viewing room instead of the courtroom.

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In addition to Military Reporters & Editors, the other journalism organizations supporting the letter to Rumsfeld are: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, Associated Press Managing Editors, American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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