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Afghanistan: Report Says Pentagon Restricted Journalists' Access To War Sites

Reports last month that U.S. air strikes hit a pre-wedding party in central Afghanistan and killed scores of civilians drew strong interest from media around the world. Yet in the first days following the strikes, the U.S. military appeared to restrict media access to the story, agreeing to take just two reporters to the scene and then not allowing other journalists to share in the two reporters' work. The event has renewed concern that U.S. military officers in Afghanistan may be overly restrictive in their treatment of journalists.

Kabul, 5 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During the first three months of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. journalists were denied access to American troops more than in any previous war involving U.S. military forces.

That's the conclusion of a report published earlier this year by the U.S.-based publication "The Columbia Journalism Review." The findings were based on interviews with U.S. reporters, foreign-desk editors, Washington bureau chiefs, top news executives, and media critics.

The Pentagon appeared to take the criticism to heart, but only after the Taliban regime fled Kabul in November and a Western-backed government was installed in early December. Since then, press information centers operated by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition have been opened at the Bagram air base north of Kabul, as well as at the Kandahar airport and in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

On 27 December, the Pentagon dropped its requirement that those covering U.S. military troops in Afghanistan must be part of an exclusive group of authorized journalists, called a "press pool." Under Pentagon guidelines, pool journalists must be escorted by a military press officer, and their work must be approved by military censors before being disseminated.

The Pentagon guidelines also call for pool journalists to share their notes, photographs, and videotape with journalists outside of the pool who request the information. The system was set up in the aftermath of the 1983 U.S. military campaign in Grenada and updated after the 1991 Gulf War in response to widespread complaints about military censorship. Although the Pentagon is under pressure from U.S. media organizations, there is no court case confirming its legal requirement to follow the system.

Since the end of December, reporters in Afghanistan have been allowed to roam the country freely. But under an agreement with U.S. media organizations, the U.S. military is still making press-pool coverage available to give journalists easier and more timely access to incidents in remote parts of the country.

Recent violations of the Pentagon's press-pool guidelines by U.S. military officers, however, have renewed concern about the military's press policies and contributed to suspicions the Pentagon is trying to cover up possible blunders in Afghanistan.

One such incident occurred on 6 December, when American troops were struck by a stray U.S. bomb north of Kandahar. Photojournalists in the press pool at the Kandahar air base were locked in a warehouse by U.S. Marines to prevent them from taking photographs of injured American troops.

The Pentagon later issued a written apology and promised that journalists would be given greater access in the future.

The most recent case involves an air strike last month that killed at least 48 Afghan civilians at a pre-wedding party in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan.

When news of the mishap first broke, the U.S. and British press officers at Bagram air base were flooded with requests from Western journalists in Kabul to join a press pool traveling with a team of U.S. military investigators.

But journalists were told that unless they were already based at a media tent at Bagram, they would not be allowed to board a U.S. helicopter flying to the site. As a result, only two journalists went to the villages near Deh Rawud with the U.S. investigators. One was a reporter from the U.S. armed-forces newspaper "Stars and Stripes." The other was a cameraman from the U.S.-based Associated Press Television Network.

It took four days before the first information from the two-man press pool became available to other media groups.

While this was happening, the chief U.S. media officer at Bagram, Colonel Roger King, was telling those left out of the pool that they had no right of access to any of the pool reporters' work. "If you were here, you were part of the pool. Any product that came out of the pool belonged to anybody who was here," King said.

In response to follow-up requests for the pool reports, Colonel King's aide, Lieutenant Tina Kroske, repeated in writing that, "only those in the media pool" would be given access to its work -- a position that contradicted the Pentagon's own definition of a "press pool."

Sally Hodgson, the public-affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, later confirmed that King's position did violate Pentagon guidelines.

Robert Spellman, a former journalist and a leading researcher on U.S. press law and military censorship, told RFE/RL that the violations of the Pentagon's guidelines may have been improper, but they were not illegal. "First, [the press-pool rules are] not a law. They are just Pentagon guidelines. There's no law that says the Pentagon must provide access to areas under its control," Spellman said.

Spellman explained that there has never been a successful case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court that establishes a constitutional right of access to battle zones where U.S. soldiers are deployed. "The first issue is [whether] there [is] a right of access, period. And that hasn't been established [under the U.S. Constitution]. There are law-review articles arguing that [there is a right of access.] A [court] case [stemming from] the Gulf War says there may be. But it wasn't litigated. I don't think that there is any right of the press to be on military helicopters. That's by grace of the Pentagon or by grace of the theater commander," Spellman said.

While it took four days for the first press-pool reports from Uruzgan to be shared with other journalists, those reporters who risked traveling to the area on their own were not prevented from reaching the site.

That point is critical amid allegations by some United Nations workers last week that U.S. soldiers removed or destroyed evidence at the site of the pre-wedding party as part of an intentional cover-up -- allegations that have been fiercely denied by the Pentagon.

Spellman said there is a difference between so-called "stonewalling" -- when authorities are deliberately obstructive with journalists -- and the allegations of a conspiracy to destroy evidence as part of a cover-up. "The military does stonewall at times. The information [officers in the U.S. military] are trained in how to handle things. That said, what I've read about the wedding [in Uruzgan Province] would not qualify as a cover-up," Spellman said.

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, has denied that his press officers intentionally hampered the work of reporters in the hope that coverage of the Uruzgan story would dissipate.

The issue of press-pool reporting is one that cuts to the heart of two competing principles in the U.S. Constitution. On one hand is a fundamental aspect of U.S. press freedom: the right of all citizens to access information in order to monitor whether elected officials are properly performing their public duties. On the other hand is the need of the government to protect national-security interests: in particular, to prevent journalists from reporting details about ongoing military operations that could threaten the lives of U.S. troops in the field.

As the "Columbia Journalism Review" notes, many journalists say concerns about operational security are often exaggerated by the U.S. military as an excuse to prevent negative stories about the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan from eroding public support for the war on terrorism.

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of "The Washington Post," pointed out to the Pentagon late last year that bad news that is not reported in a timely fashion can create unnecessary suspicions of a government cover-up.

As an example, Downie cited an erroneous report from Grenada in 1983 alleging that a massacre had been committed by American troops. Though the story was false, journalists were not allowed on the island when the report first surfaced. As a result, reporters were unable to report independently that the story was part of a disinformation campaign against the United States.

Downie predicted that time would tell whether important information about Afghanistan has been hidden from the American people under the guise of protecting national security.