West Hawaii Today county and government reporter Nancy Cook Lauer was barred from attending a U.S. Army meeting that the newspaper contends was opened to the general public in Hilo, Hawaii, on May 16, 2019.
Lauer was attempting to cover a meeting that outlined the Army’s resource management plants at Pohakuloa Training Area and the Kawaihae Military Reservation outside an Aupuni Center meeting room.
Lauer wrote in a West Hawaii Today article that she was told “the participating parties might not feel comfortable expressing their opinions in the presence of the media,” and that the meeting was not a media event, despite the public being allowed to attend. She told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that she pushed back, and asked for a citation of the legal authority that would allow the public to attend a meeting, but not the press.
“[The event] was originally set for those who had signed up as consulting parties to the process, but then members of the public insisted they be allowed in and I went in as well,” Lauer told the Tracker.
Pohakuloa Training Area Public Affairs Officer Mike Donnelly said that the event was not open to the public, and that some consulting parties and signatories to a training programmatic agreement that were present did not want the meeting recorded. However, he said that “to avoid conflict and to show good faith,” the meeting was opened to non-consulting attendees to fill open seats.
“Notably, only one journalist showed for the meeting in Hilo,” wrote Donnelly. “As a result, we did state that it was not open to the public, however, as a concession and out of respect for the journalist and 20+ years of working with media, I requested the reporter and our subject matter expert to move into a separate room where they could talk and have a Q & A session so the reporter gathered content and context for her story.”
Lauer said that any time she spent with an official focused on gaining access to the meeting rather than on gathering information for reporting.
“If it were an interview for a story, I would have asked them about the details of the project, not about the meeting,” she said.
Lauer said that she left after being told by both Donnelly and a cultural resource manager for U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa that she could not remain.
West Hawaii Today reported that an activist who attended the meeting said that attendance was initially to be limited to a list of consulting parties, but was later opened to the public altogether — before Lauer was told to leave.
Lauer told the Tracker that on the Monday following the incident the Army commander called her to apologize and claimed he was not aware that his staff had taken the action to ban her from the event. She said that the commander was present at the meeting, near the front of the room.
“In retrospect, the PTA Team could have certainly done things differently, however, we were following the established process and respecting those who are consulting parties and signatories,” wrote Donnelly, the public affairs officer. “We will continue to engage the media in an open and transparent manner.”
Although Lauer was not able to attend the meeting, she said she was later given video footage by one of the attendees, which she said could aid future reporting.
On May 19, West Hawaii Today published an opinion piece arguing that the Army was wrong to boot its reporter from the event. It expressed concern about how extreme press freedom violations — such as those by President Trump — can seep into the conscious of everyday people.
“Some of it, like booting the media from a public gathering, we cannot write off as simply silly,” the piece reads. “Kicking a reporter out of a public meeting is a serious issue. It cannot become the norm. The United States military is a first-rate operation. If it says it wanted to err on the side of privacy and caution, we can take that at face value this time around, but still disagree with its decision. The information inside that meeting is meant for the public and WHT will get it and share it, regardless.”
Lauer said this was the first time she had been denied access to an event open to the public.
“As a reporter with more than 25 years of experience, I am accustomed to various barriers being thrown up as I go about my job informing the public,” she told the Tracker. “This is the first time, however, I have been ousted from a meeting otherwise open to the public. It's sad that I, who have worked diligently to portray all sides and prevent bias in my coverage, now have to rely on a video from a source with a known point of view in order to write about government actions that our readers deserve to know about. The media is not the enemy.”
— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]