By Tyler Pager and Paige Leskin
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Only a handful of news organizations were represented at the latest installment in the trial of the alleged co-conspirators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A major factor in the lack of robust coverage is the location — Guantanamo Bay, the controversial detention center where journalists are often hindered by the military’s media restrictions and limitations.
“If it were happening in New York City or anywhere on the mainland, there would be a lot more coverage and a lot more public scrutiny of what’s going on and why,” said Jess Bravin, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has covered Guantanamo. “The public is not getting the kind of access that the events in question suggest would be justified.”
Bravin has traveled to Guantanamo dozens of times. He said restrictions on journalists’ movement and constant supervision from “military handlers” are among the challenges reporters face. He also said he did not have access to detention facilities and the military refused to confirm the existence of certain facilities and activities on the island.
The Miami Herald is the only news outlet that has a reporter on the Guantanamo beat consistently. Carol Rosenberg, who arrived in Guantanamo just days before the first detainees, is estimated to have spent more than 1,000 days on the island. These days she is often the only reporter there.
Dave Wilson, Rosenberg’s editor, said the special circumstances surrounding Guantanamo make it far from a normal reporting experience. Rosenberg declined to be interviewed for this article.
“You have to go at the invitation of the government, the military. You just can’t go,” Wilson said. “When you’re there, you can’t go anywhere you want to and talk to anyone you want to. There’s a lot of restrictions on that.”
Before traveling to Guantanamo, each reporter must agree to a set of media guidelines, a 13-page document of various rules and regulations set by the Pentagon. The document establishes the Department of Defense as “the sole release authority for all military information contained in all media … gathered or produced within” the detention center operation.
It also mandates that public affairs officers must approve all photos and videos before publication. Reporters are prohibited from photographing certain military facilities and the faces of military officers and detainees.
The obstacles for media are not just limited to reporting.
Journalists spend most of their time at Camp Justice, home to the military courtrooms, the media center and the living quarters.
At the media center, each reporter is given access to a landline phone, which has a sticker notifying the user they consent to monitoring. Additionally, journalists must pay $150 a week to have Internet access, strictly available through an Ethernet cable.
Meanwhile, other guests, including lawyers and victims’ families, stay in town houses or hotels. The living conditions for journalists, along with the monitoring of communications, are ways the military makes reporting in Guantanamo “uncomfortable,” said Wilson, the Miami Herald senior editor.
“When we do reporting from other places and other government facilities, we’re able to do things like install our own phone line and have our own Internet connection that we don’t have to have installed by a government contractor and pay that kind of rate,” Wilson said.
Reporters also voiced concerns about the inconsistencies in media regulations, as public affairs units that implement the rules are usually deployed to Guantanamo for no more than a year. The constant changeover of staff often results in new rules, reporters said.
“It seemed that there was a constant churn and change in procedures, which was hard to understand what the rationale was,” Bravin said. “Certain things were permitted on one trip and they were prohibited the next and vice versa. It was difficult to understand what the reasons were and the military by its nature is not a transparent institution.”
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Myles Caggins said new units deploying to Guantanamo spend two weeks training with the unit that precedes them to ensure the media guidelines are properly implemented.
When the detention center first opened in 2002, there were significantly more reporters at Guantanamo. The restrictions on their movements and access were less stringent.
The current rules are the result of negotiations in 2010 after four reporters were banned for life from reporting in Guantanamo. The Pentagon expelled the reporters, including Rosenberg, after they disclosed in their articles the name of a protected witness.
However, the reporters and lawyers argued the witness’ name was already publicly available and the ban was lifted.
Caggins said the media guidelines are in the process of being updated and the Pentagon press corps will be able to give feedback once they are drafted. But the Pentagon ultimately has the final word, he said.
Despite the strict rules and resistance that reporters often encounter, Rosenberg and other journalists continue to cover Guantanamo.
Their persistence is imperative in exposing to the public what occurs at Guantanamo Bay — a place shrouded in skepticism about the trial proceedings and the detainees’ living conditions, said Gene Policinski, senior vice president at the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
“It’s not really rocket science that when these proceedings take place in secret … controversy washes over into trial proceedings,” Policinski said. “I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to have more openness and transparency about what the press is allowed to report independently.”
Caggins cited the more than 300 members of the press who have reported in Guantanamo and the military commissions’ website that includes all documents related to proceedings as ways the government maintains transparency.
Yet, Bravin, the Wall Street Journal reporter, said the government is not transparent enough.
“The only possible source of independent information that is not driven by a particular self-serving agenda is that of the press,” Bravin said. “Here you have the democratic government of the United States undertaking really extraordinary measures and the American public is entitled to know as much as possible about those measures.”
During the proceedings, the military can keep entire sections of trial from the public if information discussed is deemed “classified.” Additionally, court filings are not released to the press for at least 15 days, as they must be reviewed for security purposes. The delay in getting documents poses challenges for reporters working on deadline.
When a place like Guantanamo is under such great scrutiny, the government has to work even harder to ensure its actions are available to the public, said Wilson.
“There are such tremendous concerns about the fairness of the proceedings at Guantanamo,” he said. “They can’t possibly be open enough for reporters to be able to accurately portray what’s being discussed. But yet, there are a great many restrictions on how that goes. That I think is a shame.”