A video posted to YouTube by the Miami Herald shows how the United States military is now imposing a greater regime of censorship on the press, who are credentialed to cover the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Since 2002, reporters from the media organization had been reporting on the facility. Rarely has it been easy to do reporting, but, when four senior journalists for the Herald traveled to Guantanamo in March to shoot video “with a staff videographer for the first time,” the Herald “encountered censorship of the sort” that they had “never experienced.”
What images the journalists were able to get past the military’s censors were cut together in a video narrated by Herald senior editor Dave Wilson. It notes, “For years,” the organization was “allowed to take pictures of troops who consented and we could name them.” A photograph of a soldier on duty from July 2013 is shown. They had also been permitted to photograph Guantanamo prisoners so long a “distinguishing features” were not shown.
“This time we had a whole new layer of restrictions and ended up with lots of footage of headless soldiers,” Wilson states.
Reporters for the Herald discovered later that the exact people they were told they could not photograph or video could be found in military pictures “taken by Army journalists.” These pictures could be found through a Google search and had been “posted as approved for release on public and Pentagon websites.”
Also, Wilson describes in the video how reporters were essentially denied opportunities to record video and conduct interviews by a public affairs officer. The military censored footage of “communications hardware.” They also were not allowed to photograph a presentation on “operational security” guidelines reporters are expected to obey as well as improperly informed it was prohibited to photograph and shoot video of a ferry crossing.
The censorship is what drove Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor, to send Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel an angry letter protesting conditions on April 4.
Published by The Huffington Post, it explained that the new rules “forbade the media” from “photographing the faces of anyone but the detention center commander, his spokesman and the contractor in charge of catering.” They had not been permitted to photograph any of the “other members of the 2,100-member staff of JTF-GTMO.”
Any images of other members were “systematically deleted.” Reporters were told that they presented an “operational security threat,” including images of people who had already had their faces disclosed “through public affairs imagery.”
Gonzalez highlighted an infuriating double-standard:
Yesterday, soldiers assigned to the same operation as your enlisted “operational security officers” published a story and photos under the headline, “There and Back Again: Guantanamo guards return 12 years later.” It showed the names and faces of four soldiers on the 2,100-member staff, quoted them by name and published a routine interview on the web and in print, journalistic style.
If we at the Miami Herald do the same thing, under Southcom’s new gag order on troops talking to media and new ground rules governing civilian media access, the people who censored my journalists at Guantánamo have the authority to expel them from the base and permanently ban them from reporting there. In short, under your rules, the story your media wing published would have been defined as an operational security violation had we published the same thing.
Last December, video a French journalist recorded of “Santa Clause at the Guantanamo commissary, with permission of an escort” was seized by troops. The image was deleted, but troops staged a “similar photo” later. It was published “on the cover of the detention center’s in-house newsletter, The Wire,” according to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez concluded that troops are now “wielding editorial instruments on independent journalists with an ever-expanding interpretation of their power to influence the story of Guantanamo in the free press.”
On December 5, Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg, who had been painstakingly tracking the number of people on hunger strike (as well as which prisoners were being force-fed), reported the United States military would no longer be releasing data for media. Navy Commander John Filostrat, leader of public relations at Guantanamo, said, “JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public.”
The new level of secrecy makes it possible for the military to conceal its force-feeding of prisoners, which one Yemeni prisoner has challenged in a US court.
There was an issue in 2010 when the Pentagon tried to ban four reporters for naming a US army interrogator accused of torturing Omar Khadr after the military had requested they withhold his name and others from their reports. Joshua Claus’ identity had become known two years ago in an interview with the Toronto Star, but the military insisted on banning “Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of The Globe and Mail, Steven Edwards of Canwest News Service and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief John Stackhouse reacted, “We strongly disagree with the Pentagon’s interpretation of its own rules, and intend to fight the ban as a matter of Canadian public interest in these hearings.” He added, “The name in question was a matter of public record. Banning the information now—when it is already known around the world—serves no apparent purpose other than to raise more questions about the credibility of the Guantanamo courts.”
Rosenberg and Shephard were eventually reinstated in July 2010, but they were made to put down in writing that they had “violated military rules by disclosing the identity of an Army interrogator,” even though Claus had revealed his identity to the public before the military decided to retaliate against them for engaging in journalism.
Back in September 2010, it appeared that new ground rules for covering the military commissions at Guantanamo would make it easier for reporters or organizations to appeal when they were ordered to crop or delete photos or video. They could also challenge what was “protected information” through a process. It would seem any achieved flexibility has been lost. The reporters can submit to the censorship regime of JTF-GTMO or else.
There are a plethora of issues at Guantanamo, most significantly the fact that the facility remains open and still holds human beings in indefinite detention—many whom pose no threat to the United States whatsoever. There also is the military commissions system itself, which suffers from a national security apparatus constantly working to conceal evidence of torture and spying on defense attorneys in order to manipulate justice.
The latest horror to come out is that alleged USS Cole bomber Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri may have been sexually assaulted or anally raped by interrogators, according to testimony from a psychologist who was allowed to testify on Nashiri’s untreated PTSD.
What the Pentagon would prefer is someone like Business Insider’s Robert Johnson, who just compliantly takes tours of the detention center’s facilities and proudly aids the military in making it appear the command has a genuine commitment to openness, fairness, justice and humanity. However, the Miami Herald’s reporters are not like Johnson. They have a commitment to telling the story they want to tell, not the story the military wants reporters to tell from guided tours. And that will always be a problem for a military command structure, which trains public affairs officers in the art of controlling the narrative.