In reaction to the leak of audio of a statement read by Pfc. Bradley Manning in military court at Fort Meade last month, a military public affairs officer told reporters credentialed to cover his court martial, “Police yourselves.” The officer scolded the press saying, “If there is another violation, everyone feels the pain, not just certain individuals.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) in March published a copy of audio someone recorded of Manning reading the statement he wrote when he pled guilty to disclosing some information to WikiLeaks. FPF saw the publication of the audio as an act that supported journalism, which combatted “overreaching government secrecy.” It noted, “While reporters are allowed in the courtroom, no audio or visual recordings are permitted by the judge, no transcripts of the proceedings or any motions by the prosecution have been released, and lengthy court orders read on the stand by the judge have not been published for public review.”
The officer offered no proof that the leak came from a particular individual, who was in the media operations center. Her comments just made it clear the public affairs officer had adopted a posture toward the press that we were all suspects.
“This media operation center is a privilege, not a requirement,” the officer declared. She suggested this privilege could be taken away. The press pool might have to go to the court room where computers would not be allowed if another leak occurred.
Her passive aggressive statements to press continued: “Everybody has said they are journalist to be credentialed for this proceeding. That means you abide by the journalist ethics rules.” And, “if you see somebody doing a violation, police the rules.” In other words, become a snitch or informer and help the military do its job of keeping the proceedings secure.
No Mussolini School of Journalism exists so one can confidently say that there is no journalism school that teaches journalists to police fellow individuals in their profession, including others they may work alongside in a press pool.
She also said, “Protect the sanctity of the proceedings.” The fact that she used the word “sanctity” shows that these officers are indoctrinated with security culture to an extent that they follow it as if it were religion.
This display of contempt for freedom of the press came on the same day that the Army actually took the unprecedented step of handing out physical copies of two rulings issued by the judge during court proceedings. It was clear this would not be happening every day (despite the fact that it should).
A military legal matter expert actually called the Freedom of Information Act process “cumbersome” and said, “We have more latitude in here because it’s not in response to FOIA.” What he meant was that it is actually easier to give members of the press copies of the rulings on the day they are issued. (However, the military still wants to apply FOIA exemptions to court records, which seems inappropriate and a violation of the First Amendment.)
As I wrote earlier today, Fort Meade may operate under a standard that all press are potential suspects who could commit security violations at any moment. I recognize they are here to protect the security or, as the officer put it, “sanctity of the legal proceedings.” But, reporters are not at the proceedings to protect security. They are there as reporters to cover the proceedings so that others in the United States—and the world—can be informed of developments.
It is the military officers on base whose job it is to zealously guard the proceedings—and all who do are very committed to this duty. In fact, the military is so committed that the judge ordered that media not be allowed to have cell phones in the media center, which is collective punishment of reporters (people whom the military has no proof played any role in the leak).
In a press release put out by the Bradley Manning Support Network, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) characterized this statement that media access was a privilege and not a right, “One of the more foolish and dangerous propositions I have ever heard.”
If the military has not adopted a posture that the press are all suspects, then they have at least shown they are willing to treat press in the pool as kindergarteners. And, unless media are good little girls and boys and obey the rules like they are supposed to do, they are going to lose recess or playtime—which in this case is a level of press freedom that has made it possible for reporters to cover the court martial comprehensively, even as court records have mostly been withheld from the press.