By Daphne Eviatar, Senior Associate, Law and Security
In a letter that Human Rights First sent today, joined by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Institute of Military Justice and Amnesty International, we protested the Defense Department’s decision last week to ban four of the most experienced and widely-respected reporters covering the military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay.
During pre-trial hearings in the case of Canadian citizen and alleged child soldier Omar Khadr, which we’ve been covering here, the military banned Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of the Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards of Canwest News Service from covering the military commissions in the future.
The reason given was that they’d published the name of a supposedly anonymous witness who testified for the government. But although he was identified by prosecutors only as Interrogator #1, the witness had actually been the subject of a widely-publicized 2005 court-martial for abusing detainees at the U.S.-run detention center at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Shephard, who wrote a book about Khadr’s case, had previously interviewed the interrogator personally and named him. And Rosenberg has tenaciously covered the military commissions since their inception — the only U.S. reporter to consistently do so. It’s no surprise, then, that they were able, along with many other reporters at Gitmo at the time, to discover who Interrogator #1 really was, before he even testified. The reporters published his name before the military judge instructed them not to reveal his identity.
“Whatever confidence the public in the United States and around the world may maintain in these proceedings can only be eroded by a move that is perceived as being motivated by a clampdown on informed media reporting rather than the protection of classified or confidential information,” we wrote in the letter, sent on Wednesday to defense department officials.
To be sure, Human Rights First has expressed little confidence in these proceedings for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that by holding trials at a remote U.S. military base in Cuba, in a country that U.S. nationals are legally forbidden from even visiting, the military is effectively shielding itself and its justice system from any meaningful public scrutiny. By banning four of the reporters who have consistently covered the military commission proceedings, the military is limiting even further the public’s ability to know how this newly-created justice system is operating.
Human Rights First and the other NGOs who regularly monitor the military commissions rarely make joint public statements protesting their operations. But we thought it was important to respond to this latest move by the Pentagon because of the critical lack of information available to the public about the military commissions. The government has chosen to continue to operate them despite their poor track record (they’ve convicted only three terrorists), questionable legality and the availability of a highly successful and internationally renowned federal justice system located in our own country. For the defense department to now ban both U.S. and foreign reporters from the commissions only further masks their operations and undermines their credibility worldwide.
We hope the Pentagon will reconsider.