Outrage of the Week: new Pentagon manual could allow for indefinite confinement of journalists
Now for our other regular feature, which is called the Outrage of the Week.
The Pentagon has just released a new version of its Law of War manual, updated to apply to all branches of the military for the first time. It pulls together all international laws on war applicable to US armed forces, and is designed to be a reference guide for the military.
And it includes a vaguely worded provision that would allow local commanders to treat journalists as "unprivileged belligerents," a variation of that weasel phrase "unlawful combatants," if such a journalist is believed to be sympathizing or cooperating with the enemy, with the terms "sympathizing" and "cooperating" open to interpretation - and experts in military law and journalism both say that military commanders could interpret the terms broadly.
Bear in mind that a person deemed an "unprivileged belligerent" is not entitled to the rights afforded by the Geneva Convention as a prisoner of war, so a commander could do anything to a reporter considered to be such an "unprivileged belligerent" from restricting them from certain coverage areas which are available to others up to holding them indefinitely without charges .
Defense Department officials said the reference to "unprivileged belligerents" was intended to point out that terrorists or spies could be masquerading as reporters. Well, duh. But it doesn't say that.
Another provision says that "relaying of information" could be construed as "taking a direct part in hostilities." Officials said that is intended to refer to, for one example, passing on to an enemy information about locations of troops or other classified data or for another acting as an artillery spotter. But it doesn't say that.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was not the Defense Department's intent to allow an overzealous commander to block journalists or take action against those who write critical stories.
But it's already happened, long before there was a manual telling some "overzealous" commander that "relaying of "information" which he or she doesn't want sent out is justification for a journalist to be accused of "taking a direct part in hostilities" or "spying, sabotage and similar acts behind enemy lines." For one example, journalists working for The Associated Press and other news organizations have been detained or thrown out of embed arrangements for stories, video, or photographs that the military found unflattering.
And during the Iraq war, the US military detained several Iraqi journalists, some of whom worked for established international news organizations like the AP, Reuters, and AFP. Fortunately, ultimately, all were released without being prosecuted, though one, Pulitzer-winning photographer Bilal Hussein, was held without charge for two years.
Reporters Without Borders called the language in the new manual "dangerous," while others in the media used terms like “threatening,” "disturbing,” "speculative," and "hostile."
Oh, but don't worry, the manual also has helpful suggestions as to how journalists can avoid being dumped in some version of Gitmo because some "overzealous" commander takes a dislike to their reporting. First, they should always gain permission for their reporting from "relevant authorities" - without, we should not be surprised, providing guidelines about what to do in conflict zones, which are often chaotic. And second, they should submit all their relevant work for review and censorship, so the military can have total control over what is reported to the public.
In short, just go when and where the military tells you and report what the military wants you to and you'll be fine.
Which I'm sure the Pentagon would regard as the best of all possible worlds, a dream world. A dream that is an outrage.
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