The Pentagon, the Defense Department's building (DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force.)

A letter by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and co-signed by 46 news media organizations and associations was written to the US Defense Department requesting access to records during the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks.

Journalists covering the proceedings decided to send the letter because during court proceedings, such as the Article 32 hearing, the media has not been granted access to documents, including the court docket. This means journalists have had little to no idea of what was being discussed in regards to motions or orders filed.

To fix this problem, the “coalition” has called for the following to occur:

…post online within one day the filings and decisions that do not require classification review and within 15 business days (except in “exceptional circumstances”) those that need review; post unofficial transcripts as soon as possible after the end of the day’s proceedings; authorize military judges to rule on disputes over the designation of “protected” documents; and allow an interlocutory, or interim, appeal by the prosecution on any order regarding closure of proceedings or restriction of access to documents…

Here is the full list of associations and organizations that signed on to the letter:

ABC News; Advance Publications, Inc.; A. H. Belo Corporation; Allbritton Communications Company; ALM Media, LLC; American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; Association of Alternative Newsweeklies; Atlantic Media, Inc.; Bloomberg News; Cable News Network, Inc.; CBS News; Cox Media Group, Inc.; Digital First Media; Digital Media Law Project; Dow Jones & Company, Inc.; The E.W. Scripps Company; First Amendment Coalition; Gannett Co., Inc.; Hearst Corporation; Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association; The McClatchy Company; Meredith Corporation; Military Reporters & Editors; MPA – The Association of Magazine Media; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; NBC News; New York Daily News; The New York Times; Newspaper Association of America; The Newspaper Guild – CWA; The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; NPR, Inc.; Online News Association; POLITICO LLC; Radio Television Digital News Association; The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Reuters News; Society of Professional Journalists; Stephens Media LLC; Time Inc.; Tribune Company;USA TODAY; The Washington Post; and WNET

The requests to the Defense Department take on particular urgency as a pre-trial motion hearing is scheduled at Fort Meade, Maryland on March 15 and 16 this week.

There exists a clear example of documents being withheld that should have been available to media. During Manning’s Article 32 or pre-trial hearing, as Josh Gerstein of POLITICO reported, “details of a proposed defense order aimed at limiting pretrial publicity in the case” was not made available.

The requests are not unreasonable at all. In fact, the RCFP letter makes it clear that a “similar group” advocated last fall that they should have “greater and easier access to important information about military commission proceedings held at Guantanamo Bay.” They succeeded in gaining access.

The Defense Department created a website where journalists could go to view documents from “each of the military commission’s cases against accused terrorists.” It also committed itself to a “new process” whereby media “may object to the designation of information as ‘protected’ and thereby shielded from public view.” And, now the “coalition” would like the government to make similar reforms to court-martial proceedings so that Manning can “have the same rights to a public trial as those afforded accused terrorists.”

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It is not surprising that journalists would have to send a letter to the Defense Department asking for the same access to information that they are afforded during Guantanamo Bay military commission proceedings for terror suspects. The UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez asserts Manning was subjected to “cruel and inhuman” treatment when he was held in isolation at Quantico Marine brig. The military says he was subjected to such conditions during confinement because of the “seriousness” of his offenses.

The government has delayed the date of Manning’s trial for months now raising questions about whether Manning has been denied the right to a speedy trial. When he goes on trial in August, as is expected, he will have been held in detention for eight hundred days.

Manning is accused of “aiding the enemy,” knowingly releasing intelligence that could be used by al Qaeda or other affiliated groups to mount attacks on the United States. He has, in many instances, been treated as if he were a “terror suspect.” So, is it any surprise that journalists would have a difficult time getting access to information on Manning’s court-martial?

Moreover, it is Sunshine Week. Press associations and media organizations, along with civic groups, are engaged in a celebration of freedom of information and openness in government. However, there isn’t much openness when it comes to the prosecution of Bradley Manning.

I know from experience what this level of secrecy means for reporting, as I covered all seven days of Manning’s Article 32 hearing and was a member of the credentialed media pool.

Backroom meetings and announcements of orders and motions of which the contents were unknown regularly occurred. This meant one was suspicious of what was happening. Sure, it was easy to tell what was happening in the courtroom; but, was what was unfolding in the courtroom the full story? No, as Gerstein uncovered, it was not.

Most of the media viewed the proceedings from the Media Operations Center, since there were only ten seats for press in the courtroom. Those in the Media Operations Center watched a closed-circuit feed. When technical glitches happened (and they did), there was no way for press to know what was said because a transcript could not be accessed. One could ask members of the press in the room at the time or military public affairs staff people that might have been present about the proceedings, but this was counterproductive. Military public affairs were reluctant to state what happened in the courtroom if they didn’t take notes, and fellow members of the press had stories to write and file.

Thus, if proceedings are conducted with too much secrecy, journalists are left to make presumptions on what the media and public is not being allowed to hear.

The trial of a soldier who is accused of one of the biggest leaks in history is, as RCFP writes, “a matter of intense public interest, particularly where, as here, that person’s liberty is at stake.”

If the press has access to information, Manning will receive a more fair and proper trial because coverage will be more comprehensive. On the other hand, if the press has to overcome obstacles to cover the proceedings, there will be many more questions that raise suspicion about whether Manning received a fair and proper trial. Therefore, not only does the press deserve more access to information on proceedings, but Manning also does as well.