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Amid backlash, Department of Defense backs away from new press regulations at Guantánamo Bay

September 9, 2019

New press rules issued at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Aug. 28, 2019, would have curtailed journalists' ability to report freely at the detention camp where 40 detainees are still held.

The new policies, which military officials asked journalists to sign within 48 hours in order to report on military commission hearings in September, would require journalists to be constantly escorted while working at the naval station, and would give public affairs officers the right to review and approve interview recordings "prior to upload into any laptop." The rule also gives Naval Station personnel the ability to seize “all materials and equipment” in a journalist’s possession, including cell phones.

“[Journalists] may not participate in any activity related to their work, including any news or information gathering activity, if they are not accompanied by a designated public affairs escort and have that escort’s explicit consent,” the policy reads, according to The Intercept. The policy also requires journalists to “submit all still imagery, video imagery, and audio recordings taken at [Naval Station Guantánamo Bay] to the appropriate security reviewer,” according to a letter written by a lawyer for The New York Times.

The Department of Defense's Office of Military Commissions created a separate policy in 2010 that applied to journalists inside military commission facilities at the naval station. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay public affairs officer J. Overton told The Intercept that the new rules covered the naval station generally, but not reporters at the Office of Military Commissions. (Emails sent by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker to the Navy for comment were not returned.)

In a tweet, Guantánamo-based New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg called the new rules “unprecedented.” “In all the years I’ve covered Guantanamo I have never been presented with these Navy base documents to sign. This week was the first time,” Rosenberg wrote in a separate tweet.

Deputy General Counsel for The New York Times, David McCraw, sent a letter to Paul Ney, the general counsel of the Department of Defense, on behalf of a media coalition including the Times, the Associated Press, NPR and First Look Media, decrying the new rules. McCraw provided a copy of the letter to the Tracker.

“[T]he Naval Station is attempting to exercise a level of control over journalists and their newsgathering activities that has no apparent security justification and interferes with the First Amendment rights of the news media,” McCraw wrote. The existing OMC policy, McCraw wrote, has been effective, “striking a serviceable balance between the need for operational security, the protection of national security and the First Amendment rights of reporters.”

On Sept. 6 the Department of Defense formally rescinded the new press regulations, after offering unofficial reassurance on Sept. 2 that the rules would not go into effect.

“It’s a good thing that they’re stepping back and looking at the issue on a more global basis,” said David Schulz, an attorney at Ballard Spahr who has been closely involved in the fight for press access at Guantanamo over the years. “The existing ground rules were the result of extensive discussions with all the relevant stakeholders in 2010.”

McCraw wrote in an email to the Tracker that he was glad the Department of Defense took seriously the concerns he voiced in his letter. “Guantanamo remains a vital story, and reporters need the freedom to report fully on the proceedings there,” he wrote. “We look forward to working with the Department of Defense to make sure that the rules in place take into account the needs of our news organizations.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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