Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is encouraged that the administration is making efforts to accommodate journalists who are seeking to cover a possible U.S. military action in the Gulf. We welcome the Pentagon’s plan to embed as many as 500 journalists with U.S. forces as a positive step that will improve front-line access to combat operations.
However, based on a 10-day trip, which CPJ senior program coordinator Joel Campagna recently completed to Kuwait, Qatar, and Jordan, we have a number of concerns regarding both the embed system’s implementation and the ability of the many reporters who plan to report outside the system to conduct their reporting duties freely.
During his recent trip, CPJ’s Campagna visited U.S. military bases in Qatar and Kuwait, meeting with military officials in both places to discuss the Pentagon’s media policy. CPJ is particularly concerned by the specific language in the recently released Public Affairs guidance document on embedding and the Coalition Forces Land Component Command Ground Rules Agreement, which embedded journalists will be required to sign. The language could be used to justify unreasonable limits on coverage.
For example, among the information deemed “not releasable” in the agreement is that which pertains to “on-going engagements.” According to the guidelines, such information will not be released unless authorized by an on-scene commander. What constitutes an ongoing engagement is not clear from this document, and unit commanders could interpret it in an extremely broad manner as a basis to restrict reporting.
We, of course, recognize the need to protect certain kinds of information to ensure the safety of U.S. forces. However, we are concerned that under the embedding guidelines, unit commanders have the authority to request that embedded reporters refrain from reporting on a number of broadly defined categories of information. Despite explicit guarantees that journalists’ material will not be censored, the guidelines state that when a unit commander believes a reporter may be in a position to reveal sensitive information, he or she may ask a reporter to submit copy for security review. The commander may then ask the reporter to remove information that is classified or sensitive. Access to such information would be contingent on agreeing to this review.
Moreover, despite general assurances from Pentagon officials that they will limit reporting only in cases where operational security would be jeopardized, reporters have expressed fears that officials will restrict coverage by limiting movements or delaying journalists’ ability to file stories. The current guidelines grant broad discretion to unit commanders to limit the dissemination of information likely to be contained in news reports.
Perhaps more important than the embed plan itself is the extent to which journalists not embedded with U.S. troops will be allowed to move and gather news freely. To date, U.S. officials have offered no convincing guarantees that “unilateral” reporting, or reports by nonembedded journalists, will be allowed to proceed without interference. Pentagon officials have stated that they anticipate the presence of unilateral reporters in a potential military theater, and military units that encounter journalists will treat them “like any other civilian person found on the battlefield.” Officials, however, have never provided details or assurances about the kind of access unilateral reporters would experience on or around the battlefield but instead have warned journalists about the dangers associated with not embedding.
Lastly, CPJ is concerned for the safety of the significant number of journalists who will likely be working in Baghdad should conflict erupt. While we are worried about possible threats from Iraqi authorities, who detained and imprisoned several international correspondents during the 1991 Gulf War, we also fear that foreign reporters working in Baghdad could be endangered by U.S. air strikes. We note with concern that U.S. and NATO forces have targeted local broadcast facilities in previous conflicts, including the 1999 strike on the offices of the Yugoslav state broadcaster RTS television. Furthermore, your office has failed to assuage the concerns highlighted in our January 31, 2002, letter requesting clarification on the November 2001 U.S. military strike that destroyed the offices of the Arabic language broadcaster Al-Jazeera in Kabul, Afghanistan. We remind you that statements made by Pentagon officials to U.S. media representatives on February 28, 2003, warning of the potential dangers to unilateral reporters operating in Iraq do not absolve U.S. forces of their responsibility to avoid endangering media operating in known locations.
Today, hundreds of journalists are preparing to cover what could be a potentially hazardous assignment in Iraq and the Persian Gulf should the U.S. decide to attack Iraq. Despite these inherent dangers, journalists have an obligation to report the news, especially in times of war, when public information is crucial. Any U.S. military action must take into account the safety of working journalists and their ability to work freely. As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, we urge you to take the following actions to make certain that journalists covering a possible war with Iraq can do so freely and safely:
- Ensure that journalists operating within the embed system be allowed the maximum possible freedom to report;
- Provide public assurance to journalists who will be reporting outside the embed system that the U.S. military will not interfere in there work and will impose only those restrictions absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel and operations;
- Refrain from targeting broadcast and other media operating in Baghdad; and
- Ensure that maximum precaution is taken to avoid harm to journalists operating in known locations in potential military theaters.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We await your response.