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August 1, 2015

Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists as spies

Filed under: News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, human rights — news_editor @ 9:05 am

Richard Lance Keeble

Journalists may be treated as ‘unprivileged belligerents’ - a category which includes suspected spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas - according to the Pentagon’s first Law of War Manual.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists: ‘This broad and poorly defined category gives US military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial. The Obama administration’s Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the war on terror and codified them to formally govern the way US military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.’

Prisoners of war are protected internationally with rights that include being treated humanely, having their status as prisoners reported to a neutral body such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and being held with the expectation of release once hostilities end. ‘Unprivileged belligerents’, however, like ‘spies, saboteurs and other persons engaging in similar acts behind enemy lines’, according to the Law of War Manual, may be subject to domestic penalties which can include, for instance, the death penalty for those found guilty of spying.

The manual has received little press coverage, but Russia Today quoted Chris Chambers, a Georgetown University undergraduate communications professor, saying that the manual gave US military forces ‘licence to attack’ journalists. At 1,180 pages long and with 6,196 footnotes, the manual includes vague and contradictory language about when and how the category of ‘unprivileged belligerents’ may be applied to journalists. The Law of War manual is the Defense Department’s most ambitious endeavour of its kind to date. Yet its authority already seems in doubt.
The last paragraph in the preface written by the lead author and top Pentagon lawyer, Stephen W. Preston, states that, while the manual represents the views of the Defense Department, it does not necessarily represent the view of the government. Weeks after the document was released, Preston, who previously served as general counsel to the CIA, resigned.

The US military has taken action against journalists before. Bilal Hussein, whose photograph of insurgents firing on US soldiers in Fallujah in 2004 helped earn Associated Press photographers, including Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize, was detained by marines in 2006 and held for two years. The US military never explained the detention of Hussein, who gained the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2008.

Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering a US-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan. US military forces accused him of being a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and other ‘extremists’, but never provided evidence to support the claims. Al-Haj, now head of the human rights and public liberties department at Al-Jazeera, was held for six years at the US military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Before his release, US military officials tried to compel him to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release, according to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also expressed serious concerns over moves by German authorities to open an investigation into the critical German news website Netzpolitik. Two of the website’s bloggers, Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, as well as an unidentified third party, have been accused of treason, In February and April, Netzpolitik reported on plans to expand Germany’s domestic surveillance of online communications.

Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator, commented: ‘These are grave allegations with potentially serious implications, not only for Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, but also for German media covering national security issues. CPJ is monitoring these developments with great concern.’

Treason charges in Germany carry 15 years in prison, unless a judge chooses a harsher sentence. The last time treason allegations were made against the German press was in 1962, when the editor of Der Spiegel was accused after the magazine published documents about the German military.

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