New US gov­ern­ment rules may change war re­port­ing

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ROB LEVER

New guide­lines in a U. S. mil­i­tary war man­ual may change the rules for re­porters cov­er­ing con­flicts, but it re­mains to be seen how the U. S. De­fense Depart­ment ( DoD) will im­ple­ment the new pol­icy.

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

The DoD 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 joined other or­ga­ni­za­tions this past week in ex­press­ing con­cern, send­ing a let­ter to De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter urg­ing con­sul­ta­tions on the is­sue.

In the let­ter to the U.S. de­fense chief, 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,” said the group’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral, Christophe Deloire, in the let­ter.

Deloire said gov­ern­ments “have a duty to pro­tect jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing armed con­flicts” un­der a United Na­tions 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 ex­pressed sim­i­lar con­cerns last month, say­ing the DoD “has pro­duced a self­serv­ing doc­u­ment that is un­for­tu­nately help­ing to lower the bar” for press free­dom.

And 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-Qaida.

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.

Con­sti­tu­tional Is­sues

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 told AFP.

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

Steven After­good, who mon­i­tors U.S. gov­ern­ment se­crecy at the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists, said im­ple­men­ta­tion of the pol­icy will be crit­i­cal, not­ing that it merely cod­i­fies ex­ist­ing prac­tices an laws.

“A lot de­pends on how those laws are in­ter­preted in prac­tice,” he told AFP.

“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.”

After­good added “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 ab­str act.”

“In the U.S., at least, con­sti­tu­tional val­ues should lead us to fa­vor free­dom of the press,” he said.

The DoD said some el­e­ments of the man­ual may have been mis­con­strued, but that it was will­ing to work to al­lay any con­cerns.

“We’ve be­gun reach­ing out to lead­ers in the media to ini­ti­ate a dialog on the man­ual. We ex­pect this dis­cus­sion will be­gin soon,” Lt. Col. Joe Sow­ers told AFP.

In an ear­lier email, Sow­ers said that the DoD stands “by the le­gal ac­cu­racy of the man­ual.”

“But the fact that it is be­ing con­strued in the way it has been is some­thing of ma­jor con­cern to us.”

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