US authorities have lifted a ban on journalists asking questions about ongoing investigations when visiting the US military base at Guantanamo (Cuba). Five journalists flying there from Florida on 14 October were required to sign a form saying only that officials would not answer such questions. In an earlier version last week, three visiting journalists had been obliged to agree not even to ask them.
Guantanamo spokesperson Lt. Col. Pamela Hart confirmed the ban had been lifted and said the US military had been "momentarily a bit too conservative" in its intention to "protect the integrity of the investigation and ongoing assessment" at the base. Among the latest group of five journalists were a reporter from the daily Miami Herald and one from Vanity Fair magazine.
The new version of the form still forbids journalists from communicating with or identifying prisoners on pain of losing their accreditation, banning them from taking pictures on which detainees can be identified, recording remarks by them or covering the transfer of prisoners from one part of the base to another.
Reporters Without Borders today condemned the action of the US military authorities in making US reporters visiting the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) on 7 October sign an undertaking that they would ask no questions about investigations under way there, on pain of being removed from the base.
Two days after the incident, a US official in Washington said the requirement was about to be rescinded. This was not the first time that the military authorities have obstructed the work of journalists in Guantanamo on "operational security" grounds.
"These restrictions are unacceptable as they quite simply prohibit journalists from doing their job," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "Unfortunately, the strict supervision of reporters is the rule, not the exception, at the Guantanamo base," Ménard said. The base houses a detention camp where suspected members of Al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies are held.
"Using the pretext of the fight against terrorism, these measures above all have the effect of limiting the appearance of reports which could give rise to further criticism of the US administration," Ménard added.
Reporters Without Borders said it hoped the US administration confirms that this new restriction on asking questions has been dropped. The organisation also urged the administration to improve work conditions for journalists at the base, so that the legitimate security concerns are not an obstacle to their work.
In previous cases of obstruction, equipment was taken from a BBC television crew working for the current affairs programme "Panorama" on 20 June, while the room of a crew from the Italian TV station RAI 1 was searched on 11 September 2002.
Forbidden to ask questions
In the 7 October incident, the Associated Press (AP) reported that journalists from the AP, New York Times and Fox Television were forced to sign the undertaking before boarding a flight from Jackson military air base (Florida) to Guantanamo.
"Asking questions or perspectives about ongoing and/or future operations or investigations can result in restricted access on Gitmo [Guantanamo], removal from the installation, and/or revocation of DoD (Department of Defence) press credentials," the statement said.
Asked why the journalists were being made to sign the statement, Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said, "Why ask a question that you’re not going to get an answer to?" She added that the measures helped in "protecting the integrity of the investigation." They was the first group of journalists to go to Guantanamo since the arrests of a military chaplain and two interpreters, one of whom has been accused of spying.
A US Department of Defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, yesterday told the British news agency Reuters that this ban on asking questions was on the point of being lifted.
In the 20 June incident, military authorities separated a BBC crew from a group of journalists visiting the Camp Delta detention centre in Guantanamo, seized its sound equipment and erased recordings in which prisoners could be heard shouting questions to the journalists. Reporter Vivian White, who had responded to questions from detainees asking if the visitors were journalists, was confined to a building at some distance from the camp.
The Guardian quoted a US officer as saying the BBC crew had to surrender its sound tapes in order to continue shooting video. A military spokesperson said the BBC journalists violated a ban on talking to detainees. According to the US authorities, the ban was imposed in order to comply with the Geneva Conventions, but the ICRC questions that the conventions require this.
The room occupied by the Italian TV crew in Guantanamo was searched on 11 September 2002 when it was suspected they had filmed in an unauthorised area.
Other reporters visiting the base last year said they were increasingly restricted in their activities there. Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg said they were permanently escorted and their contacts with base personnel, including civilians, were monitored. AP reporter Paisley Dodds said access to the hospital and the possibility of seeing the prisoners became more difficult during 2002 and there was an almost total ban on taking photographs on "operational security" grounds.
The publication of photos of 20 detainees being treated in a degrading manner on their arrival at the Guantanamo Bay base in January 2002 drew criticism in many parts of the world. After that experience, the Pentagon cited security reasons for banning the news media from covering the transfer of detainees from Camp X-Ray to Camp Delta, both in Guantanamo Bay, a few months later. Coverage of the construction of Camp Delta was also restricted.