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United States15 June 2006

News blackout slated as Pentagon orders four journalists out of Guantanamo Bay

Reporters Without Borders condemned the Pentagon’s decision on 14 June 2006 to force four journalists to leave Guantanamo Bay where they were reporting on the aftermath of the suicides of three detainees there on 10 June.

They were Carol J. Williams, of the Los Angeles Times, Carol Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, Michael Gordon, of the Charlotte Observer and photographer Todd Sumlin also of the Charlotte Observer.

The Pentagon’s decision comes at a time when the existence of Guantanamo military base is being contested internationally. The latest events should have prompted the Bush administration to opt for greater transparency about its operation, the press freedom organisation said.

The decision damages the credibility of the US administration and could give the impression they were doing their utmost to hide something about the centre.

“We condemn the Pentagon decision and we call on the US government to take the necessary steps to guarantee the media free access to the naval base at Guantanamo,” said Reporters Without Borders.

Michael Gordon and Todd Sumlin were at Guantanamo when the three detainees took their own lives on 10 June. They had received permission to come onto the base to write a profile of a prison official, Colonel Mike Bumgarner, originally from North Carolina where their newspaper is based.

Carol J. Williams and Carol Rosenberg, along with eight other journalists, were due to cover a hearing into the case of an Ethiopian detainee, scheduled for 12 June. The hearing was adjourned following the 10 June events and their authorisation to enter Guantanamo was withdrawn. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, Carol J. Williams and Carol Rosenberg had managed to get the agreement of camp commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris Jr., to enter the base.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the three reporters began covering the aftermath of the suicides on 11 June and to carry out interviews, including with commander of the Southern Command, John Craddock.

Pentagon spokesman, Jeffrey D. Gordon, told the Editor & Publisher that the order given to the journalists to leave Guantanamo was not linked to the reports they had done, even though an article written by Michael Gordon might be controversial. He said that several media had threatened to take legal action if their reporters did not get permission to enter the base or if some media were favoured over others.

Another Pentagon spokesperson Cynthia Smith, said that the decision was therefore in the interests of impartiality and fairness. She added that it was impossible to allow all media access to the prison. She said the base’s military personnel were all focussing on investigation into the three suicides and boosting security, meaning they could not envisage the arrival of a large media contingent at the present time.

However, Doug Frantz, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times said, “Expelling Carol Williams and her colleagues represents a Stone Age attitude that only feeds suspicions about what is going on at Guantanamo. If the military hierarchy has nothing to hide, it should have respected the invitation extended by the [prison] commander and the professionalism of the journalists."

The US military authorities have on a number of occasions blocked the work of journalists at Guantanamo on the basis of “operational security”, however in October 2003 a ban was lifted on asking questions about ongoing investigations.

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